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Emilio Mina: The love story behind this Italian ‘power’ resto

Caruso Ristorante Italiano turns 20, still rich with authentic cuisine and tales of memorable guests like Andrea Bocelli

Emilio Mina and John Lloyd Cruz

This is a long-running story of how an Italian man’s devotion to his Filipino wife has been the main driver of his business in the Philippines.

As Caruso Ristorante Italiano celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, owner Emilio Mina, the detail-oriented Italian entrepreneur, patron of the opera and the arts, and gracious host, continues to serenade the diners with Italian and local pop songs.

 Since the easing of restrictions, its patrons—prominent personalities and businessmen—have shown their voracious appetite to meet colleagues and friends yet again. Aside from the authentic and classic Italian cuisine, Caruso has become the low-key yet ultimate power place where you might spot leaders of conglomerates such as Fernando Zobel and Lance Gokongwei. Business and political kingpin Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco was a regular.

In this interview, Emilio is dapper in a blue suit by Kiton, an Italian luxury brand, with his signature red silk pocket square. His tie is Hermès, a gift from loyal client and singing buddy, composer Jose Mari Chan. He’s in brown monk’s shoes, made in Italy—naturally. A Jaeger LeCoultre, one of his wife’s many presents, sparkles on his wrist.

He hands out a bunch of papers, a Q&A on Caruso, prepared by a PR firm for the restaurant’s landmark year. “I tell the same things to the media anyway,” says Emilio.

The most oft-repeated question in interviews is how he came to the Philippines. Emilio was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1934 to a well-to-do family of entrepreneurs and great cooks. At age 24, he managed the family-owned stocking manufacturing factory with a workforce of 600; he did so for 24 years, until his family sold it. He established Spaziele Splendy, a pioneer in using microfiber for bathrobes, and gifted world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, with customized bathrobes and slippers during the G8 Summit 2009 in Italy.

In the fashion business, he set up a factory for Marlboro Classics (now MCS), the high-end denim apparel brand, in Crimona, northern Italy. His investment paved the way for transforming a backward town into an industrial city.

As investor and businessman, he forged friendships with prominent people including  tycoon and Italy’s former Prime Minister Carlo Berlusconi, billionaire and former Ferrari chairman Luca de Montezemolo, and Prince Luitpold of Bavaria.  Since 2015, Emilio has been sending Barbera d’Alba wine to Pope Francis and receives “thank you” letters from the Vatican. The wine’s provenance is Piedmont, the birthplace of the pontiff’s ancestors.

“I’ve always been good in liaising,” says Emilio.

Emilio was also a consultant to Japanese investors. One day in 1989, he was escorting a Japanese client to Pitti Uomo, a menswear trade fair in Florence. As the elevator door opened in the hotel lobby, he was struck by the sight of a porcelain-skinned woman with almond eyes.

As the elevator door opened in the hotel lobby in Florence, he was struck by the sight of a porcelain-skinned woman with almond eyes

“Good morning, bella signorina,” he said, and she smiled back. Charmed by her exotic beauty, he couldn’t stop thinking of her. He ran into her again in the same place at noon, and in the evening and gave the same greeting of “bella signorina (beautiful woman).”  On the third encounter, Emilio realized that this was fate. He invited Filipino businesswoman Evelyn Lopez for a prosecco. She was on a buying trip for menswear for Manila stores.

Emilio eventually became Evelyn’s supplier of Italian fashion brands.  As they grew closer, he visited the Philippines and took Evelyn to Boracay in 1991.

As business partners, they hosted the Philippine press on a tour in 1995, bringing the editors to the Stefanel factory in Treviso and on sightseeing in Rome, Venice and Florence.

A turning point came in 2003 when Evelyn suffered a stroke due to aneurysm in the brain and underwent surgery. Emilio flew to Manila and visited her in the hospital daily until her recovery.

One evening while in the casino of Heritage Hotel, he met an Italian chef and businessman, Dario Gardini, who invited him to his restaurant Caruso in Bel-Air, Makati. Dario opened Caruso at LRI Plaza in 2002.

Emilio was impressed with the authenticity of the food and the cozy interiors. When Evelyn became well enough to leave the hospital, he organized a thanksgiving dinner at Caruso. For three years, he shuttled between Italy and the Philippines and made Caruso his hub on his visits.

Enamored by the sweetness and kindness of Evelyn despite her disability, he married her in 2006. The couple became Dario’s business partners in 2007.  Emilio bought shares just to keep Evelyn busy.

The elegant man that he is, Emilio upgraded Caruso by importing Italian brass trim for the dado panels and the kiln, Italian brass pendant lamps for the kitchen, and flower vases. The white tablecloths and napkins were made of pure Egyptian cotton by a manufacturer whose family had been in the textile business since the 1600s. He envisioned Caruso to be a casual fine dining restaurant.

However, Evelyn could not deal with the stress of the restaurant business. Emilio then sold his businesses in Italy and bought out Dario’s shares in 2015. He has no regrets, as Caruso has become his venue for entertaining.

The late Danding Cojuangco would ordered crepes ‘al funghi porcini’; George Yang likes minestrone soup and pasta vongole

The power people define the place. Sen. Miguel Zubiri loves the truffle pasta, while Jose Mari Chan favors truffles with his meals. The late Danding Cojuangco would order crepes al funghi porcini. Businessman George Yang likes minestrone soup and pasta vongole, while his wife Kristine orders cream of mushroom soup and tagliatelle with black truffle.  Before the pandemic, Japanese businessmen were regular diners, steaks being their favorite with Italian wine.

Imelda Marcos would order the insalata Caprese, Parma ham, and garganelli pasta with porcini sauce. Occasionally there were celebrity sightings of Marian Rivera and Dingdong Dantes, Cesar Montano. Conrad Onglao and ZsaZsa Padilla had their getting-to-know-you date there. Lance Gokongwei would host meetings over pizza and pasta. Through the years, socialite Becky Garcia and husband George Sarakinis have made Caruso their second home.

Emilio cites three factors why Caruso is the choice of prominent people. He maintains that the restaurant is uncompromising in the quality of its ingredients. It imports the best dry pastas, steaks, sea bass, and the white truffle from the Alba region. The executive chef, Fervin Bonna, trained by an Italian, has been working for Caruso for 17 years.

Emilio recommends the Italian sea bass with Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio and other diet busters—Tuscan beef fillet, vitello tonnato or creamy veal with Russian salad, risotto Milanese or saffron-infused Arborio rice. Pulling out the wine menu with a cover of a painting of a man holding a vessel of wine and fruits by Baroque artist Caravaggio, he says, “I want a classic restaurant with the best wines.” Emilio starts enumerating such premium brands as Val d’Oca, La Bottega Nicastro, Chianti Classico Antinori.

Impeccable restaurant service drives customer loyalty, adds Emilio. The servers in their bow ties and vest are dressed like the waiters in Italy.  With his extensive experience in deluxe hotels, manager Leo Balanquit has been training the waiters to please the most demanding customer. Emilio continues to polish their rough edges. His most trusted manager, Charisa Francisco, can practically read his mind.

The ambience exudes quiet elegance. Former ambassador to Italy Virgilio Reyes once said that Caruso reminded him of fine dining restaurants in Rome. The Italian linens’ supplier remarked that the place transported him to Milano or Florence.

Emilio enlivens the restaurant by chatting with clients and singing almost every night. When he sang Azzurro for Andrea Bocelli at Caruso, the superstar tenor lauded his host. Guests can have a surprise number from concert pianist Raul Sunico or arias from soprano Rachelle Gerodias and baritone Byeong Park.

At home, Emilio is the quintessential loving husband. In the morning, Emilio would work out in the home gym and assist his wife in her exercises. “I take care of her and massage her feet. She has been wonderful to me,” he says.

Sharing his secret for longevity at age 87, he says, “I try to live the last years of my life in serenity.”

About author

Articles

She is a veteran journalist who’s covered the gamut of lifestyle subjects. Since this pandemic she has been giving free raja yoga meditation online.

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