There’s a new Italian restaurant in town, with stylishly mod interiors, a red hot Valoriani pizza oven, and a human pasta maker up front vigorously rolling out dough for the fresh handmade pasta a mano is named for. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the person behind the restaurant—Amado Fores—but he would rather let the concept and the food take the stage, rather than this turn into a piece about how the only son of the Philippines’ most beloved and most awarded chef, Margarita Fores, opened up an Italian restaurant in Rockwell, just a few floors below Cibo (not to mention there’s his aunt’s Mamou on one side and his cousin’s Made Nice on the other).
To be fair, it’s certainly a good thing that this first-time restaurateur is actively trying not to use the weight of his family’s legacy to push his new venture. As one of those who interviewed his mother in the past, however, I’m naturally curious about the threads that run between them; Margarita recently posted a long, gushy proud-mama note that would’ve made any grown son blush, and it was something that I had hoped to unpack. But today is all about the restaurant, its selection of regional dishes, and how authenticity is not a thing he’s striving for.
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Let’s start with the Cacio e Pepe, which, forgive me, I’ve only been familiar with as “New York’s trendiest pasta.” It’s a ridiculously simple dish that requires absolute precision to prepare. Pecorino and pepper combine to create a creamy, yet dry sauce that coats firm spaghetti noodles, and at a mano, it’s served in a crispy cheese bowl. Anthony Bourdain relished this typical Roman dish so much that he claimed he would sacrifice his first sexual experience just to have it again.
If you like things even cheesier, the Focaccia Di Recco is a definite reco (you saw what I did there). The paper-thin, Stracchino-filled flatbread, which Amado likens to an Italian quesadilla stuffed with funky mozzarella, will make you wonder where it has been all your life. The answer is: on the streets of Liguria, a coastal region in the northwest of Italy.
A handy map of Italy’s regions, with accompanying tasting notes, can be found on the menu, helping customers visualize just how the flavors, produce, and personality of each cuisine changes geographically. Italy was unified as a nation in 1861, making it a relatively young country with a myriad of cultures and peoples who are quite territorial and proud of their own. Apparently the joke goes that if a cow crosses the road, the cheese is no longer Parmigiano-Reggiano.
a mano is not just about strictly regional cuisine. One of Amado’s favorite items on the menu is the Garganelli Bianco, a dish he named after chef Michael White, whose garganelli alla Fiamma, a fresh pasta dish with truffle butter, prosciutto, and peas Amado tried as a 13-year-old in New York had stayed with him forever, perhaps even providing the spark of inspiration for his restaurant. Amado’s mom actually had a hand in the realization of this dish in that she messaged White on Instagram to ask permission for Amado to name it in his honor. The handmade pasta here is key—the noodle is rolled with an overlap at the center, giving it a thicker bite than is normally found in fresh pasta.
Amado describes what he’s trying to do as “Italian food that wouldn’t piss an Italian off.” He may lightly tweak a classic recipe, or “re-engineer” it according to taste and availability of ingredients, like the Tuscan butter chicken, inspired by the dish made famous by Trattoria Sostanza in Florence, wherein he swaps chicken breast for thighs and throws a bit of rosemary in the butter. He serves a carbonara pizza, a modern Roman invention, using the classic carbonara ingredients of smoked pork jowl and egg (no cream), on a pie whose chewy, poofy crust is so tasty that I couldn’t leave any of it behind, carbs be damned.
The Italians are notoriously exacting about defining how a certain food is made, like their Neapolitan pizza. The dough here strives to be as faithful to the traditional Napoli style, using Caputo flour and hand-stretched every morning. The Valoriani oven is the only commercial gas oven certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the regulatory body that sets the rules of true Neapolitan pizza, which is almost always wood-fired. The oven Amado is using was actually inherited from the previous restaurant that occupied the Rockwell space.
You know the dough is artisanally made when the restaurant actually runs out of pizza by 2pm. Lunch service is packed, with guests spilling out on the sidewalk even on this wet day. Groovy Italian covers of American songs play on the speakers, selected by Amado himself to tickle the ears. He moves from table to table, comfortably greeting his Titas. There’s a fashion designer seated with a patron of the arts, a celebrity dermatologist with a cohort of notable scions, a couple of Aperol Spritz-drinking millennials asking if anything is gluten-free (there is a cacio e pepe salad!). People might come first for the Fores luster, but they’ll come back for everything else.
“I’ve been thinking of putting up this restaurant my whole life,” Amado says, “because of the way I was brought up. But it was two years ago that I really decided, when my mom took me back to Italy.” His first trip at the age of 9 was memorable for him ordering a lot of steak and drinking Coca Cola and not much else. His second trip, when he went around Rome, Venice, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, proved to be the turning point in the creation of this restaurant. Although he took up political science in college, food was always on his mind, just not in a culinary school kind of way. He claims he doesn’t cook, but he is known among his friends for his flawless taste and deep love of food.
He lets slip one anecdote from his personal life as we talk about the finicky eating habits of young children. “My mom force-fed me escargot at the Paparazzi restaurant when I was six years old. It was OK, until she told me what it was afterwards—then I cried.”
At only 28, Amado Fores will have many more stories to share over a table of crusty bread and DOP olive oil. For now, as he launches his baby into the world, he would rather let a mano do the talking.
Photographs by Miguel Nacianceno