How Makati pizza joint Crosta fired up a thrilling new era in local dining

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Behind the beloved pizza brand that’s taking a comfort food staple out of its comfort zone — but at what cost? Photo by SONNY THAKUR

At the Makati apartment that Crosta’s founding couple share, clumps of dough stare down at us. “How the fuck did they get there to begin with?” wonders Ingga Cabangon Chua of the Orion’s Belt of dough now fossilized on her dining room ceiling.

Her partner, Tommy Woudwyk, dates the dough cluster to Crosta prehistory, long before their “Pizza of the Year 2023” nod (awarded by actual Italians in Napoli, FYI) and further even before the endless swarm of customers and app-dispatched riders at their Makati branch, all as eager for their order as parents awaiting their kid’s name at graduation.

A good five years before Crosta became the Philippines’ most exciting purveyors of pizza, it was just Ingga living, breathing, and dreaming dough in this very apartment. “It surrounded us when we slept,” she remembers, describing tubs of dough she let ferment in their bedroom. At one point, dough was even a drinking buddy, which might explain the archaeological find on their ceiling.

Ingga Cabangon Chua in the apartment where her dough obsession started. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

“What happened is one day we were drunk,” says Tommy, who often assisted Ingga with kitchen prep in those early days. Back then, their dining room was their commissary. A four-door chiller leaked water onto the hardwood floor as industrial food containers formed an assembly line on their breakfast counter. Walking inebriated one night toward an area crowded with water jugs, a slapstick scenario ensued as Tommy slipped, catapulting the roof-clinging relic we see today.

When Crosta launched in 2017 from a container van in Poblacion, demand for its pizzas grew as steadily as the party-hardy crowds that populated the area. Customers were as enthusiastic as the friends who urged Ingga to sell her pies in the first place. Some even peeked into the kitchen asking for the Italian man they pictured at the oven, surprised to find a peppy Filipino-Chinese girl dusted in flour instead.

Pizza made with a little more craft and care was a rarity in the Philippines. If your pie wasn’t hastily baked and swamped in grease by a behemoth chain, you conditioned yourself to pay top peso for artisanal pizza. “We were like, ‘Holy crap, ₱900 for a pizza?’” Ingga says of the sourdough pies that Dean & Deluca launched in those pre-pandemic days. “We were slightly offended that we would pay that much just to enjoy good pizza.”

Ingga had always been on the hunt for quality pizza. Hell, it’s how she met Tommy, she says, recalling the pizzeria she frequented as a college student in Sydney, where amid lining up for a prosciutto-and-arugula-topped slice, some guy behind her had struck up a conversation. A decade later and be it Tokyo, New York, or whichever flourishing food scene the couple traveled to, pizza was always part of the itinerary. But why couldn’t amazing pizza be closer to home, she demanded. The question niggled at her until finally, the Kitchen-Aid her brother randomly gifted her one Christmas stared her in the face.

One of five notebooks documenting the dough journey to Crosta’s current crust. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

She shows me an old notebook filled with what look like Pictionary doodles. On one oil-stained page, oven temperatures are scribbled in no particular order; above, the rough drawing of a circle is pock-marked and tersely labeled “Bubble.” It documents her literal highs and lows in making pizza exactly how she wants it: crust that’s tasty even without toppings, offering char-speckled crunch that sinks into delightfully chewiness.

“There’s so much to learn and you kind of just get sucked into it,” she says. Building her know-how via Google and an old recipe from Tommy’s mom, Ingga soon became so devoted to her pizza side project, she eventually snuck it into her day job managing real estate for her father.

At Sandari, their residential development in Batangas, she lured clients into a sales pavilion with the promise of brick-oven pizza. Back then, her crust resembled the dormant volcano that bordered Sandari, a hulking mass with barely any room for toppings. Still, customers kept coming back, some even leaving with a house and lot to-go. Ingga laughs, recalling the walk-in customer who dined and bought property in the process (“I called my dad and said, ‘Hey dad, we ROI’d!’”)

Then called Crust, the Sandari project was the playground that celebrated Ingga’s small triumphs and forgave her every foible in the kitchen. It wasn’t until a friend alerted her to a space at a new Poblacion food park that her dough was forced to come of age, like a small-town adolescent granted a one-way ticket to the city. “It didn’t become serious until we went to Makati, basically,” Ingga says, soon scrambling to produce pizza that would stun spoiled-for-choice diners.

“She was making dough twice a day — a batch for the store and one to experiment with,” Tommy remembers of the frenetic era after they opened their first Makati branch on Ebro Street. Despite Ingga’s dad warning her about the thankless restaurant industry, she’d quit real estate and was all in. Ingga was determined to rage against Pinoy pizza’s stasis and serve pies that were both refined and reasonably priced, stretching the dough herself while a former housekeeper from Sandari worked the oven. Then, a year at Ebro and five notebooks of doodled improvements later, “we actually got to a point where Ingga was happy with it.”

Crosta’s beloved crust, “pillowy and at the same time, crunchy, which I haven’t experienced with other pizzas in the metro,” says food writer Angelo Comsti. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

It was apparent that people were too. This was pizza that flew you through Neapolitan tang, crispy Roman texture, and a toss of jet set toppings (Fennel sausage! Taleggio!). All minus the feeling that you’d just paid a hefty airport tax. “It was word of mouth and people sending [Crosta] to friends and family saying ‘I discovered this place, they only have so many pizzas they can sell, you have to order ahead of time,” says Ingga. “It just created hype on its own.”

Knowing about Crosta made you feel like an insider, more so with branding that was spunky rather than safe. Pie names, for instance, were conjured through a rowdy group chat between Ingga and her sisters. “Coming up with Basic Bitch, we were wondering how many people we’d offend,” she says of their irreverent spin on a Margherita; a Jennifer Coolidge-imitating-Monica Vitti kind of deal that’s less traditional but nonetheless delightful. “Customers would order it and tell each other, ‘This is you right here!’ We saw people were just having fun with it, you know?”

If Ingga’s pizza was the Frankenstein of her own making, she thought, why not give it her personality as well? Palpable in Crosta’s identity was a Do-it-Yourself spirit that was entirely itself, from the professional food photos it eschewed for raw iPhone snaps on Instagram, to an alternative menu of vegan pies that reflected Ingga’s own flexitarian lifestyle.

“They had good marketing but then they also had a great product to boot,” says Wildflour Italian’s head chef, Allen Buhay, who remembers standout pies from their Poblacion spot years before both their restaurants landed the world’s preeminent pizza-ranking list. “They were baking off a brick oven in a parking lot and it tasted really good. I mean, you can have a good story but if your product isn’t consistent, then what?”

“Ingga’s personality really kind of flowed into the branding,” says co-founder Tommy Woudwyk. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

With these values so underserved in Philippine dining, the demand became overwhelming. “A couple of months before the pandemic, we were already feeling growth pains,” says Tommy, describing how what was once a passion pizza project that earned them meager ‘travel money’ began to turn a real profit. “And then COVID-[19] opened the floodgates.”

Once the pandemic made app-driven delivery the de facto means to sell food, Crosta met a stampede of customers that left their humble operation feeling like it had been ransacked. “That’s when Ingga would come home in tears saying, ‘I’m frustrated that we’re doing more than ever but we’re making nothing,’” says Tommy, describing their struggle to keep up with quality amid the surge, or with apps that would grab too great a slice from their revenue. “From customers walking in, everything became 100% online through Grab and Foodpanda. We were selling more than ever but we were losing money because they were taking all of our commission.”

Tommy, whose background is software development, got to work. “What we did was to create a throttling system where we couldn’t take any more orders than the number we could produce,” he says of the pre-order system Crosta soon ushered its customers toward. The system was transparent about the timeframes in which orders would be available. And while it didn’t have the knee-jerk convenience of a leading rider app, it offered customers a wider menu selection as an incentive and ensured food was prepared properly sans pressure. Not to mention, it allowed Crosta to stanch what they’d bled in commission.

“This ordering system that had no name became successful for us and we wanted to share that with other merchants,” Tommy says of what would be called, now used by a growing roster of Philippine restaurants.

Where Ingga has the verve of a watusi firecracker, detonating entrepreneurial insight and F-bombs every which way, Tommy has the measured cadence of a tech swami. He’ll speak as earnestly and in-depth about the wonders of Japanese logistics as he does about specialty coffee.

Crosta’s founding couple with their eight month old, Wolf. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

“This one’s with Panama beans — from a really special berry. Have a smell,” he says, pulling a shot of espresso from a wood-paneled La Marzocco that sits between his two coffee grinders; one for everyday coffee, the other for sampling new beans. Clearly, both of them possess the kind of obsessiveness that’s been a boon to their business — he with production, she with the actual product and how the public perceives it.

These days, though, there’s finally room to indulge other passions, a far cry from when they doted on their dough full-time, drunken nights included. As Tommy evangelizes on bean variants, Ingga, in loungewear with a bright red pedicure peeking from silver sandals, nuzzles Wolf, their newborn. In the past month, they’d even snuck a trip to New Zealand to visit Tommy’s family, albeit with an unexpected detour to Italy.

Just a couple days ago, Italian guidebook “50 Top Pizza” awarded Crosta “Pizza of the Year” through a ceremony held in Naples. The winning pie, topped with marsala-soaked cherries and ribbons of culatello over gorgonzola cream, was the creation of Crosta’s new head chef, Yuichi Ito.

Crosta’s Cherry-Culatello pizza, launched as Yuichi Ito’s first pizza for Crosta and awarded “Pizza of the Year 2023” by “50 Top Pizza.” Photo by SONNY THAKUR

In fact, it was at last year’s awarding that Ingga and Tommy met Yuichi, who’d then won Tokyo’s Pizza Bar on 38th the top spot for pizzerias in Asia-Pacific.

“His view of the Philippines was 10 years old,” says Tommy of the Filipino-Japanese chef. After graduating from a culinary school in Katipunan and a stint cooking at the EDSA Shangri-La Hotel, he’d spent nearly a decade slinging perfect pies at the Mandarin Oriental’s Michelin-starred pizza spot.

“What Ingga and Tommy were trying to tell me was that it’s such a waste when all the talent is here but they leave for other opportunities,” says Yuichi, who had begun weighing offers coming from Dubai and Singapore. But after so much time playing by the rules of a luxury hotel restaurant, the creative promise at Crosta was just too hard to pass up.

“I needed more flavor, I needed more innovation, I needed more creativity,” says Yuichi, who joined Crosta early this year. With the cheekbones and mystery of a young David Beckham, the 30-year-old chef got customers crushing hard, but also yearning for pizza they never thought possible. From a Mother’s Day pie lavished with cherry trout, caviar, and sakura-shaped beets, to a bilo-bilo pie for Buwan ng Wika, Yuichi declared he wasn’t satisfied simply creating the kind of trendy pies available in the world’s stylish capitals. He wanted to create pizza that’ll make the world curious enough to want a slice.

“What we’re giving him is a space to do whatever the fuck he wants,” says Ingga, amused by the mischief of translating Pinoy merienda staples like bilo-bilo — or pancit palabok (for National Heroes Day) — to crust. Some spins, like a pie based on pasta alla vodka have become menu mainstays, while others like the Cherry-Culatello would claim global glory. Either way, Yuichi’s weekend specials have been a testing ground for what Crosta plans to launch mid-2024. The concept: less a restaurant, more a coliseum where diners surround him as he performs daring yet delicious feats through pizza.

“It may be dubious in print, but definitely not in flavor,” says food writer Angelo Comsti, who sampled Yuichi’s most notorious combinations and found that they actually worked. Little surprise considering this is the same guy who transformed squash into a pizza crust, stretching the vegetable’s capabilities, he recalls. “He’s not just a pizzaiolo, he has training as a chef. I’ve never met a pizza maker who does his own ingredients.”

“I need more flavor, I needed more innovation,” says Crosta’s Yuichi Ito on his decision to move back to the Philippines. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

To this end, Crosta’s commissary has been looking more like MI6’s headquarters, if its agents were on a culinary mission. Ingga’s cousin Patricia, clipboard in hand, briefs her on the status of their pastries, soon to roll out at their San Juan branch. In a makeshift storage area with a view of the Makati skyline stands newfangled equipment more particular to a haute fine dining kitchen. Yuichi raises a vacuum-sealed bag of fermented leeks with a grin; kitchen scraps, he says, that he plans to convert into vinegar.

“I think with the right techniques and the right knowledge in processing products, local ingredients can be so amazing,” says Yuichi. He opens a temp-controlled locker dangling various cuts of kurobuta from black pigs raised in Batangas. Among the meats they’ve begun curing since February is a haunch of prosciutto primed for slicing next year. It’s a bold step toward a more self-contained supply chain for Crosta, especially given the soaring price of Italian imports due to global inflation.

Crosta’s head chef, Yuichi Ito, with prosciutto made with black pigs from Batangas, ready for slicing in 2024. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

Lately, Yuichi has tumbled deeper into a rabbit hole of homegrown resources. He has consulted Lokalpedia’s John Sherwin Felix about wild mountain plants and sought out a Siargao-based fisherman who practices ike jime, the method of euthanizing fish for optimal flavor. Next year, he plans to dabble in cheesemaking.

As thrilling a prospect as pizza topped with a terrarium of heirloom greens is, how Yuichi’s lofty plans translate into a profitable restaurant is daunting, especially amid Crosta’s brisk expansion. Following three new locations across the city are plans for a seasonal pizza omakase concept in Japanese ski town, Niseko, set to launch this winter. As Crosta grows its pizza multiverse all while pushing the art in its artisanal pies, you wonder if it’s all one topping too many; if the beloved brand’s original goal to make premium pies at a friendly price can bear the weight of all this innovation.

“To be able to create [Yuichi’s] pizzas matters more to us than trying to squeeze as much margin as possible,” says Ingga, driven more than ever to push past pizza conventions. You realize that this stubborn refusal to settle is as essential to Crosta’s identity as its crust.

She compares Yuichi’s ultra-artisanal pies to their Basic Bitch variant, an entire Margherita pie once priced at ₱200 to the disbelief of many. Both are “loss leaders,” she explains. They’re meant to provoke a customer’s interest toward the rest of the Crosta cosmos, possibly even to a topping they once thought strange. “You can’t just always think bottom line, bottom line, bottom line,” she adds. “Then you’ll never be able to create products that are crazy and out there.”

With Yuichi’s ultra-artisanal creations, the Crosta team is driven more than ever to push past pizza conventions. Photo by SONNY THAKUR

So far, there seems to be an appetite to take the most beloved of comfort foods out of its comfort zone. In June, a 14-course dinner previewing Yuichi’s pizza omakase sold out, he says, to the point “we didn’t count [inquiries] anymore because it was too much.”

In any case, a disappointing outcome never deterred Ingga. As in the early days, a failed batch of dough prompted one course of action she’s stuck by all these years. Simply try something different and wait to see it rise again.