EARLY last week, I was in Balayan, Batangas, for the very first time. No, I didn’t go there to buy Balayan’s famous bagoong (fish paste) and patis (fish sauce) nor to document how they are made. I was there with a small group of Manila-based media people to sample the food of Chez Deo Ristorante Italiano.
Yes, it’s an Italian restaurant that serves authentic Italian specialties owned by Chef Deo de Castro, who has had several years of Italian cooking experience behind him. The charming restaurant is housed in an old two-storey house that stands on a sprawling 390-square-meter property, and it offers indoor, al fresco and garden dining for guests. Happy and proud that a place like Chez Deo (whose name translates to “Deo’s house”) now exists in Balayan, Balayenos have made it their favorite hangout place for good food. Politicians and businessmen book tables to entertain guests. Young people come for pizza and pasta. Families gather in the restaurant to bond over good food on weekends. More than these, however, Chez Deo has become a destination dining place that’s worth the three-hour drive from Manila with sight-seeing and pit stops in between.
At the helm of the kitchen is Chef Deo de Castro, who worked as a paralegal investigator at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) when he was younger. He worked his way up the ladder of culinary success, starting out as a dishwasher at Bargo’s Sports Bar and Restaurant and ending up as a head chef at Toto Ristorante Italiano and Little Sicily in London. It was here that he mastered Italian cuisine, having worked with 14 Italian chefs in the kitchen and making his own mark in the business.
Upon his return to the Philippines, Chef Deo headed for his home province, Batangas, and set up a modest 40-square-meter stall selling homemade Italian pizza and pasta for takeaway. Even when his place was small, Batangueños were raving about his food, and one of those who were most impressed with his pizza and the passion that he had for what he was doing was Magin Gerard, a native of Balayan who was married to an American businessman named George Gerard. George and Magin thus offered their 390-square-meter property, where the restaurant now stands, and a business partnership as well.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Chez Deo now carries an extensive menu that includes wide selections of Antipasto (appetizers), Zuppa (soups), Insalata (salads), Pasta, Pizza, Calzoni (pocket pizzas), as well as Main Courses of Manzo (beef), Pollo (chicken), Pesce (fish), Bistecca (steaks) and Gruppo (group meals), plus Spuntini (burgers and sandwiches) and Dolci (desserts).
Chez Deo capitalizes on freshness of ingredients, for, after all, fresh ingredients are at the heart of Italian cooking. So all the dishes on the menu are made using fresh vegetables, fish and seafood from Batangas, mozzarella and deli items from top deli suppliers in Manila, meat from Tagaytay, and herbs grown right in the backyard of the restaurant. The hands-on chef also makes fresh pasta like gnocchi, and his thin-crust artisan pizzas are freshly kneaded and baked in a brick oven upon order.
Last week, Chef Deo and his wife Lanie, who handles operations, and the Gerard couple treated us, their media guests, to a progressive dinner that began with Bread and Antipasti in the main dining room of the restaurant, by the open kitchen. We sampled slices of Rosemary & Garlic Foccacia, Bread Rolls, Ciabatta Bread and Soft Bread, with Insalata de Mare (slices of grilled octopus with tomato and salad greens), Tomato & Mozzarella Caprese with Onion Rings and Onion Balsamic Confit, and Parma Ham & Melon.
Then we watched Chef Deo and his staff knead, roll out and bake pizzas in the brick oven before moving to the al fresco dining area to sample four pizzas – Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, tomato slices and fresh basil), Jalapeño and Pepperoni Pizza (pepperoni, jalapeño pepper, drizzled with cracked black peppercorns), Tutte Le Carne (amm-meat pizza with slices of honey-cured bacon, spicy beef, sausage pepperoni, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses), and Pizza Delo Chef (mozzarella cheese, cream cheese, chicken breast, pepper, pineapple, mushrooms and black olives in light tomato sauce).
Next, we went up to the second floor for intimate dining, where the group sampled two salads – Insalata Greca (mixed salad leaves, onion, black olives, bell pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, dried oregano, lemon juice and black pepper), and Insalata Delo Chef (mixed salad leaves, walnuts, carrots, green pepper, fresh tomato and orange wedges, tossed in homemade dressing) – and two pasta dishes – Mare Monte (mixed seafood with seasonal veggies and lapu-lapu cubes, tossed in garlic oil and white wine), and Gnocchi with Tomato and Mushroom Sauce (tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and fresh basil).
Finally, we occupied the long table in the garden for the main event, which was a choice among Beef Parcel (beef tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry, served with mushroom and truffle cream sauce), Spiendino di Pollo (chicken skewer with seasonal vegetables) and Salmon Cartoccio (seared salmon steak with prawns, potatoes and tomatoes in white wine sauce and lemon). Of course, I chose the Salmon Cartoccio, although the other two choices also looked and smelled heavenly when served. This was also where the group shared desserts of Coconut Ice Cream with Roasted Pineapple, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Banoffee Pie.
My favorites from the progressive dinner were Tomato & Mozzarella Caprese, Margherita Pizza and Pizza Delo Chef, Mare Monte, Gnocchi with Tomato and Mushroom Sauce, Salmon Cartoccio, and Coconut Ice Cream with Roasted Pineapple.
It was one lovely dinner capped with animated conversations with our charming hosts.
After spending the night at the Coral Beach Club in Matabungkay, Lian, Batangas, the group went back to Chez Deo for lunch the next day before getting on our way back to Manila. We challenged Chef Deo to cook us some Batangueño food, and he obliged with Lomi and Batangas Goto. Bet you didn’t know that Batangas Goto had no lugaw (rice porridge) in it, only plain beef innards in a flavorful soup?
(Chez Deo is located along Fe St., Brgy. 12, 4213 Balayan, Batangas. For inquiries or reservations, call (043) 211-6868 or 0927-3064774.)