The Ilocano nurse who built Baguio’s favorite pizzeria 2
Amare La Cucina owner Edmark Bustos (right) thinks they chanced upon the right concept at the right time with their pizzeria.
Food & Drink

How this Ilocano nurse built Baguio’s most successful homegrown pizza chain

This nurse-turned-restaurateur has gone through so many challenges and detours in life. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
RHIA GRANA | Oct 21 2021

Baguio-born Edmark Bustos developed a penchant for cooking at an early age. His engineer father loved preparing meals for the family, so as the eldest child, Edmark was the one usually asked to help out in the kitchen.

But while Edmark wanted to take up culinary arts in college, he was discouraged from doing so. It’s an expensive course, he was told. “Kutsilyo pa lang, mahal na,” he recalls hearing. Since nursing was an in-demand degree back in the early 2000s and he has aunts and uncles in the nursing profession, it was considered to be the practical and promising career path to take.

Edmark Bustos with dad Mar
Edmark with dad Mar on the former's college graduation.

And so Edmark took up Nursing at the University of the Cordilleras in Baguio City, graduating in 2008. “Ang pangarap ko ay mapag-retire ko na ang parents ko at ako naman ang mag-support sa kanila,” he tells ANCX. His plan after college was to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and find greener pastures in the United States.

But even while he was in nursing school, cooking continued to be his favorite hobby. Doing community service as part of his internship offered a chance to develop his palate and sharpen his kitchen skills. He would volunteer to do the marketing and cooking, which he naturally, thoroughly enjoyed.

Edmark Bustos
Typical day at the pizzeria.

Seeking greener pastures

After passing the nursing board exam, Edmark secured a tourist visa for the US, and with a $1,000 pocket money, he left to take the NCLEX there. Someone told him the NCLEX is easier than the nursing board exam. Confident he’d pass it, he didn’t make an effort to review and failed. “First 75 questions pa lang bagsak na,” he says, smiling at the recollection.

Since he had limited pocket money, Edmark lived with relatives and family friends while awaiting to take his second NCLEX. To repay their kindness, he volunteered to do kitchen work and other household chores. “Doon din ulit na-develop ang palate ko, kasi I have a friend there na very passionate in cooking,” he shares. It was thru this friend the Ilocano nurse got to know Jamie Oliver, who collected books by the famed British chef.

Meanwhile, his second stab at the NCLEX would be a failure as well. He came home to the Philippines depressed but not defeated. He focused on reviewing for a third try. He took it in Makati in 2010 and finally passed. He wasted no time in planning his US trip. Edmark was hoping he could easily find a job after passing the licensing exam. “Nagpa-party na ako, nagpaalam na ako sa mga friends ko,” he recalls.

But something happened in the US airport as soon as he arrived. He was asked to proceed to a secluded room and was interrogated by an immigration officer. He was dealt with as if he’d done something illegal. “They asked my purpose for being there. They inspected my belongings. They found out I’m a US RN,” he recounts. He said he was in the US for a visit, and was also planning to look for a job. Since his records were clear, he was eventually released after two hours.

While the US Immigration gave him a month to stay in the US, what happened at the airport traumatized him. Again, he came home to the Philippines devastated. He recalls asking himself: “Ito ba talaga ang kapalaran ko?”

Kids love Amare
Kids absolutely love making their own pizza at Amare La Cucina

A friend saved the day

Knowing Edmark’s knack for cooking, his good friend Russell Go of Baguio’s G1 Lodge convinced him to open a burger stand at Berkeley School which the Gos run. “Dun lumabas ang pagka-creative ko. Kasi kailangan di magsawa ang mga estudyante,” says Edmark. He managed the stand for a year. “We were earning about P7,000 a day, and Russell and I would split that 50-50. Para sa binatang katulad ko, ok na yun,” he says.

Still, he wasn’t giving up on his dream to work as a nurse in the US. He’d already met his future wife Nica at that time. “Nung patapos na ang taon, naisip ko, pag nagkapamilya ako, what I was earning won’t be enough,” he thought. “It was good, it made me happy that I’m cooking. Pero I don’t think it would be able to achieve my plan na mapa-retire ko ang parents ko.”

Amare La Cucina's branch in Albergo Hotel
Amare La Cucina's branch in Albergo Hotel

So after a year at the burger stand, Edmark flew back to the US to pursue his dream. This time, he was presented with a tricky option—to say yes to an arranged marriage. To do so, he had to break up with his girlfriend. He opted to just go back home to the Philippines.

He was too embarrassed to return to Baguio, so he stayed with his girlfriend Nica in Antipolo for a while. Which is how Edmark rediscovered Jamie Oliver—Nica has a complete set of his books! The talented cook picked up “Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals” and began an obsession. 

He started watching the chef’s YouTube videos. “Gusto ko kasi pag nagluluto ako, simple lang. Maikli ang pasensya ko,” he says. “Nain-love ako sa Italian food because of Jamie. Gusto ko yung concept na with 4 or 5 ingredients, it’s heaven already. He explained it so well.”

Amare at DPS Compound
Amare at DPS Compound

Back to Baguio

Edmark soon realized he eventually needed to return to Baguio; nothing will happen if he stayed in Antipolo. Armed with newfound knowledge on Italian cooking, he returned to his hometown, borrowed money from his father, Mar, and started working on a pizza joint with Nica. 

Edmark converted their ancestral home at the DPS Compound into a takeout pizzeria, which he called Amare La Cucina. In English, “to love the kitchen.” But Amare also happens to be a portmanteau of the names of the Bustos siblings (Allan, Marian and Edmark). 

The Bustos' old house converted into a pizzeria
The Bustos' old house converted into a pizzeria

The pizza joint started operations in July 2013. Their Napoletana pizzas were flying off the shelves. But since their spot was a residential area, the operations were halted after a month. The couple had to look for a commercial spot. With the sum lent by his father, Edmark was able to lease a 100-square meter area at the lobby of Albergo Hotel in Baguio—their very first branch. The restaurant opened in January 8, 2014.

For the first two months, money was so limited they were using monobloc chairs sponsored by the Berkeley School. Eventually, they were able to buy nicer chairs and tables through their earnings. They slowly started recruiting staff members to help. “Most of them wala talagang culinary background, so we personally trained them.” Edmark and Nica, who got married in 2015, have since been hands-on in running the Amare operations.

Amare La Cucina
Amare La Cucina's wood-fired brick oven

Recipe for success

Edmark thinks they chanced upon the right concept at the right time with Amare. “Sa Baguio, nauna kaming gumamit ng pugon o wood-fired brick oven. Isa yun sa naging plus factor namin,” he says. He was able to source German fire bricks, which would retain heat for a long period of time, so they consume only 10 bundles of wood per day.

Amare La Cucina’s other selling point is that customers can enjoy making their own pizza, something the kids absolutely enjoy. The restaurant now offers a full range of Italian fare comprised of Neapolitan style pizzas, pastas, mains, appetizers and desserts. Their bestsellers include the Four-Cheese Spinach Pizza, Marianne’s Special, Wood-fired Tomohawk Steak, Wood-Fired Ribs, and their gelatos. 

Edmark and Nica Bustos of Amare
The husband-and-wife tandem behind Amare La Cucina, Edmark and Nica Bustos

Amare also has branches now in Kapitolyo Pasig, San Juan, La Union, Tagaytay Highlands, Paseo de Sta. Rosa, Naic, Cavite, and Arcovia City. They will also soon open another branch in Tagaytay (near Twin Lakes) and in Calasiao, Pangasinan.

Edmark had gone through so many challenges and detours in life. But he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Kung ibinigay agad ni God ito sa akin, siguro I won’t have the same mindset I have right now,” he says. It’s a healthy mindset, one that keeps him on his toes. “Since I didn’t study culinary arts, I always have to be better. I always have to work hard,” he says. “I always believed na may blessing si God kung bakit kinailangan kong pagdaanan lahat yun.”