Tucked in semi-commercial Bulihan in bucolic Silang, Cavite, is a “trattoria”-style restaurant called “Cotoletta Ni Saletta.” It gets its name from the owners, Matteo Saletta, an Italian who speaks Filipino quite fluently, and his wife, Jonie Olandag-Saletta, a Filipino who speaks Italian like a native.
In Italy, a trattoria is a small restaurant usually run by a husband-and-wife team or a family. Sometimes the trattoria is part of their home, as is the Salettas’ set-up. The dining area is situated on the driveway, with pocket gardens and potted plants in its nooks and crannies.
There are quaint Filipino touches such as the bamboo gazebo and bamboo poles covering the cement walls. The garden furniture—generic plastic tables and chairs —is in white. With a friendly staff and owners, it lives up to the Spanish saying, “Mi casa es tu casa” (My house is your house).
“Cotoletta,” or breaded fried meat, is to Italians what the “wiener schnitzel” is to Austrians and Germans, and what “tonkatsu” is to the Japanese. In Italy the traditional style of cotoletta, which is popular in the Milan region, uses veal, or the meat of a suckling cow. Chicken may also be used in that manner, says Jonie.
What makes cotoletta different from its German and Japanese counterparts is the batter, she says. The Italian-style batter incorporates finely ground breadcrumbs, herbs and spices with grated Parmesan cheese. According to Matteo, “Italians use Parmesan cheese like salt to flavor dishes.”
“The market dictated our menu,” Jonie says in response to a question. “At first, we decided to serve cotoletta because we thought it would appeal to Filipinos, and our menu grew from there. Our customers gave us suggestions on what they wanted.”
But first, how did Matteo end up in Bulilan? The journey began with his first encounter with the Cavitena beauty, Jonie.
Matteo Saletta was a server in an Italian restaurant located near the piazza of Duomo di Milano, the famous grand Cathedral of Milan, when Jonie came in with her friends to dine and drink. Their eyes locked and it was love at first sight, just as if Dean Martin had crooned “That’s amore.” The simpatico Matteo was captivated by the slim and charming Jonie who spoke excellent Italian. He lived up to the Latin saying carpe diem and seized the day: Before the evening ended, he had clinched a date with her.
Jonie had flown to Italy in 2012 upon the invitation of her close friend who was working there. She was then a fresh psychology graduate of the Pamantasan ng Muntinlupa and was open to new opportunities and adventure. In Italy, she soaked up the free Italian-language courses offered in schools to foreigners and would-be immigrants three or four times a week. The classes were usually held in the evening, to give students the time to work during the day.
At first, Jonie Saletta worked as a babysitter. But as she gained mastery of the language, she moved to serving in restaurants, teaching the English language and tutoring kids in daycare and nursery schools, and working at a firm selling insurance policies. By her fifth year in Italy, she had mastered the language.
Matteo, on the other hand, grew up in Sesto San Giovanni in the suburbs of Milan. His parents divorced when he was a child, and both his nonnas (grandmothers) took an active part in looking after him while his parents worked. Matteo felt he got the best of both worlds because one grandmother came from the north (Piedmont) and the other from the south (Puglia). He was able to savor the dishes of both regions; he developed a love for food and learned how to cook from his grandmothers.
Says Matteo Saletta : “In Italy, men cook. My father cooks. My brother is the real thing. He’s a professional chef working for restaurants and hotels. After high school, I attended a hotel school and focused on the service side.” As a young hotel graduate, he was exposed to and trained in the various areas of the restaurant business, as barista, bartender and server. He has also worked for restaurants where he had to multitask and cook as well.
All of these experiences provided him a good foundation which eventually proved useful in setting up his future restaurant.
After dating and living together for a couple of years, Matteo and Jonie felt they were ready to establish their own business. They decided to relocate to the Philippines, where they got married and set up their trattoria.
When they opened for business, Matteo and Jonie thought that veal was way too expensive for their target market and also difficult to source. They wanted their prices affordable. Chicken was the best alternative to veal because it was easily available and many Filipinos like the taste and crunch of a well-prepared fried chicken. Purists may diss this substitution, but the formula has worked so far.
The Salettas’ cotoletta, which comes with a choice of sauces and toppings like fresh mushrooms, mozzarella cheese, pesto, and ham and cheese, is a crowd favorite. The chicken cotoletta was originally served with French fried potatoes but customers suggested that it also be served with rice because Filipinos like eating fried chicken with rice. So the rice option was added.
With this rice combo came the innovation of the sauces, such as tomato, mushroom and mozzarella, parmigiana with eggplant, tomato sauce and mozzarella and parmigiana topping, and ham and cheese topping. Later, customers thought the cotoletta would be delicious paired with pasta, and that resulted in the cotoletta-pasta combo.
Then customers asked the couple to serve pizza. Matteo, complying, came up with his version of pizza Neapolitana, which comes in various flavors.
Now that various fast-food chains have included a fried-chicken burger in their menu, Jonie and Matteo have created a hearty cotoletta burger with tomato, cheese, egg, salad and special dressing.
They listen to their customers’ suggestions and indulge requests especially if they think these will improve the business and meet customer satisfaction. This was how their menu was developed.
But there are a couple of things that Matteo will do the Italian way with no compromise: Pasta is cooked al dente and no way will sugar find its way into the tomato sauce. He is resolute in his refusal to give in to Filipino customers who beg for a sweet tomato sauce. Says Jonie: “Matteo Saletta won’t add sugar to make the sauce sweet even if you point a knife at his neck.”
Pasta and pizza
Filipinos like meat in their pasta sauce, and the couple’s bestseller is the tomato-based Amatriciana, which has bacon slices and a touch of chili flakes. The classic Bolognese with ground beef and tomato sauce is also popular. The Carbonara is cooked in the authentic Italian style—with pure egg and no cream. Those who prefer vegetable-based sauces may have pesto made with either pine nuts or almonds and puttanesca with tomatoes, capers, olives and anchovies. The pasta with shrimp and squid has recently been added to the menu, but it is dependent on the availability of seafood in the wet market near the trattoria.
Cotoletta Ni Saletta’s pizza is cooked the Neapolitan way. The dough is light, soft and chewy with bubbles, and yet has some blackened, toasted areas called “leopard spots.” This is achieved by allowing the dough to rest and to rise naturally with very little yeast, for a minimum of eight hours so it can acquire more moisture and water content. Commercially made pizza is made with a lot of yeast because it is not given time to rise on its own. This results in a heavier pizza dough which fills one up more easily.
Matteo had been using an electric oven, but he recently invested in a brick oven which bakes better pizza because of the even distribution of heat. Baking a pizza with less yeast and at very high heat for a short period creates the bubbles, the dome at the center, and the “leopard spots” on the dough.
Like their preference for meaty pasta, Filipinos like meat on their pizza. The trattoria’s most popular pizzas are those with sausages such as pepperoni, salsiccia and ham. Non-carnivores will not be disappointed because there are delicious meatless pizza options, including Margherita with fresh basil leaves and mozzarella on tomato sauce, Quattro Formaggi, etc., even vegetarian calzone (Italian-style empanada) and pizza with eggplant and bell peppers.
There is a mini garden with potted basil in the middle of the trattoria. It can be quite charming to watch the server pluck leaves from the basil plant and see those leaves on your pizza minutes later.
For the sweet tooth
For dessert, they offer tiramisu and avocado gelato. The tiramisu is not too sweet and is made with locally sourced lady finger cookies and homemade mascarpone, which Matteo himself whips up. Their pannacotta comes with either a strawberry or Nutella topping. They also offer a unique, refreshing, herb-y lemonade with crushed basil leaves.
Business is brisk. The front area of the restaurant has limited parking so it can be quite challenging whenever things get busy. Matteo and Jonie accept take-out orders, too. Some scrumptious delicacies that are not on the menu but are part of the take-out list are: crostata (Italian-style pie with jam fillings and a tangy, lemon-y crust), banana cake, muffins, calzone, and focaccia bread with various flavors. Perfect for Christmas gifts to delight foodies.
Although Matteo promotes Italian culture and cuisine in their trattoria, he actively shares the Filipino way of life with the Italian audience through his amusing blog on Facebook, “Vivere nelle Filippine” (Living in the Philippines). He speaks in his native Italian and a smattering of Filipino as he goes to various places, tourist spots like Baguio and the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, and restaurants like Bistro Remedios in Malate. He visits eateries in Cavite to sample local food like pan de sal and pancit for breakfast, and shows Italians how these are eaten. He even teaches Italians how to prepare Filipino food such as paksiw (fish boiled in vinegar, ginger, garlic and onions).
Now that their baby, Cotoletta Ni Saletta , has grown, Matteo and Jonie feel they are ready to spread their wings and explore possibilities in the concrete jungles of Metro Manila. It won’t be long when they say “Ciao, Manila!”
Cotoletta Ni Saletta is located at Block 55 Lot 13, Ipil Drive, Barangay Acacia, Silang, Cavite 4118. For orders and reservations, call 096 88536597 or send a message on FB Messenger.