La Crespo Pizzeria: Ish Eats Brick Oven Pizza in Pampanga

Last week, I went on a little field trip all the way to Angeles, Pampanga. The reason: a new brick oven pizza place in town. A friend of mine alerted me to the existence of La Crespo Wood Fired Pizzas. 

Being from Quezon City, taking a road trip to Angeles is hardly a mean feat compared to driving to Makati. Nowadays, the search for foodie spots is largely dependent on the amount of traffic one has to go through.

The drive was pleasant enough. Upon arrival, our group was met by the characteristic green, white and red colors of the facade. This reflects the Italian flag and represents the Italian grub on offer.

Italian colors at the facade

However, the restaurant’s interior quickly drops the Italian vibe. I am on the fence about the quirky interiors mostly because I pretend to be a “purist” and that means I’m always looking for a distinctly Italian vibe.

However, despite my initial gut feeling, I have to admit that the over the top decor is an Instagram dream. Every nook and cranny of the 2-storey restaurant offers a fantastic backdrop for millenials who want to take a photo of their OOTD of simply just a selfie/groufie.

Colorful, quirky interiors

Proprietor Norwin Crespo really let his creative juices flow when it came to interior design. Inspired by a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City of the same name where he used to work, he built the place with a DIY approach.

The place is bordering on over-stimulation. The bold colors and intricate details will have your eyes flying left and right. There are hand-painted wood panels, intricate tiles and even a large, hand-made chandelier built out of empty wine bottles.

Handmade chandelier

At this point, with the restaurant not yet 100% finished, I think a large amount of bright lighting and a little refinement is all that it really needs. The bold colors and intricate details need some illumination to stop the place from feeling overwhelming and cluttered.

Let’s talk about the ergonomic design. The large tables are great for a pizza place. Diners often need a lot of space for meals that are meant for sharing. However, I find that some of the seats are difficult to get in and out of. Either that, or the wooden panels supporting the tabletop prevents your legs from comfortably fitting under the table.

Even the tables are a work of art!

Enough about that. Let’s talk about the food. Apart from all the other design elements, a large brick oven dominates the first floor of the restaurant. This is where the magic happens.

We started our meal with the classic Margherita halved with a four-cheese pizza. I always order a Margherita whenever I need to judge a pizza place. After all, the simple combination of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil is really all you really need to judge a good pizza.

Margherita/Four-cheese Pizza

Upon the arrival of our first pie, it was immediately clear that I’m not going to get the authentic charred bubbles on the crust and the soft, chewy texture of a Neapolitan pie. These are benchmarks that I look for before I can even begin to call a pizza “authentic” or “Neapolitaan.”

Nevertheless, having a different texture and style does not mean that a pizza is bad. In fact, in nearly every other region of Italy, they would argue that their style of pizza-making is better. After all, not everyone appreciates burnt crusts and a gooey soft center on their pizza. I later found out that they adjusted the oven temperature to cook the pies in 3 minutes instead of the lightning-fast 90 seconds that they do it in Italy. The Italian style cooks the pizza even before it gets a chance to get crispy.

In La Crespo, you get a hand-stretched paper-thin crust. The crust is crispy and the toppings lie all the way close to the brim, just the way Filipinos like it. I would have to say that the basil, sourced from a local farmer, is the real winner in this dish. The aromatic herb lends itself nicely to the slice, and you literally forget that there’s hardly any toppings.

As for the four-cheese…honestly, who says no to cheese? I think by default, this is immediately delicious. They don’t scrimp on the cheese and the toppings are actually thicker than the pizza crust itself. A hint of honey drizzled over this pizza makes for an instant favorite.

At this point, the guys at the restaurant allowed us into the kitchen.We got to observe the chef at work. He hand-stretched more pizza dough and prepared toppings for Hawaiian, pepperoni, chicken and vegetarian pizzas.

We also got a chance to take a closer look at the brick oven, which is fuelled by ethically-sourced wood. (Don’t ask me why they say “ethically,” I just believed them).

Now, I have seen my fair share of brick ovens, including many in Italy. This is the first time that I have seen one with a rotating pan in the middle! This allows the food to cook evenly without having to turn it manually. This is why La Crespo’s pizzas are always evenly cooked and they don’t have the uneven quality of Neapolitan pies.

It was a great experience to see the process and to get to try my hand at putting a pizza in the oven. However, It isn’t as easy as it looks even if the pies are cooked in only three minutes..

We proceeded to devour the rest of the pizzas and I would have to say that flavors have been well-adapted to the Filipino palate. There’s also an adobo pie on the menu and even a pork and Kimchi pie which should cater to the growing Korean population in the area.

Knowing all about Filipino eating habits, it’s probably a good move to adjust to local tastes. However, I must say that the adjustment would hamper me from calling the pizzas authentic as they lack customary Italian toppings like prosciutto, artichokes and fresh mozzarella or burrata.

Based on my conversation with Norwin, he says that there are plans to introduce burratta in the future as well as more traditional pizza topping such as arugula and prosciutto. It really depends how well the local population warms up to those flavors. In this day and age, I think there’s already a significant amount of adventurous Filipino foodies who are willing to venture away from the classic Hawaiian and pepperoni pies.

Veering away from pizzas, the carbonara I would say, was delicious but also leaning towards the Filipino style. The noodles were slightly softer than you would have in an Italian restaurant but I appreciate the use of eggs in the sauce. Again, I’m judging from a purist point of view. I think every Filipino family with a picky child can order the carbonara as a go-to meal for the kids. It’s comfortable and familiar.

The star of the meal (apart from the pizzas of course) are the pork ribs. These tender, fall off the bone ribs are to die for! They aren’t your typical American sticky barbecue ribs. Instead, they are flavored with Italian herbs and slow-cooked in the same brick oven where the pizzas are made.

To add a bit of variety, we also tried the chicken wings. Just like the ribs, these are flavored with herbs and spices that you don’t get in your typical American wing joint. They also serve it with a special secret hot sauce. Overall, the flavor of both the ribs and wings are unique but you won’t be left looking for your familiar American-style baby back ribs and chicken wings. Definitely must-try compliments to your pizza!

To conclude, La Crespo Wood-Fired Pizza in Balibago, Angeles City has all the makings of a great neighborhood pizza joint. It’s not snooty and unapproachable like many of the upscale new Italian places that have been popping up. Don’t expect a strict Italian menu but it’s great that the concept is limited to pizzas and a few other dishes that compliment the pie.

This is a notch above your usual fast-food pizza. The taste of freshly made pizza cooked in a brick oven is something that will always set the place apart from the chain pizza stores. The prices are extremely reasonable and that makes it a great place for the whole family or barkada to hang out.

I’m looking forward to the fresh burrata which I am told, should be available before the end of the summer. Artisanal sausages made in-house would also be a great addition to the menu. Can’t wait to come back for that! If you’re in the area, you should definitely drop by!