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Meet Luigi Barbolla, the Italian master chef of Boracay

By Tanya Lara Published Nov 05, 2021 7:04 pm Updated Nov 11, 2021 9:34 pm

I first heard of Lanterna from two women who themselves own top-rated restaurants in Boracay. It was their favorite restaurant, they told me.

The carpaccios are to die for, the pastas are handmade fresh every day, the gin and tonic is made with blueberries, the place is homey and relaxing.

Lanterna’s fish carpaccio with lemon peel, raspberries and blackberries. 

If you’re lucky, you might catch the Italian chef Luigi Barbolla cooking in his kitchen and his partner of 34 years Gladys Calonia baking focaccia. They might even sit down and have a chat with you.

Having been living and working from Boracay since July this year, I’ve met Luigi and Gladys, eaten their food, swam with them during habagat, and become friends with them.

Even if you haven’t been to Lanterna, you’ve surely eaten Luigi’s food. He’s the chef at Aria, the popular beachfront restaurant at Station 2, owned by his friend and one of the island’s original restaurateurs, Paolo Occhionero. Luigi was also a consultant at Aplaya, famous for its sunset drinks and house music.

Gladys and Luigi are everyone’s relationship goals—always bantering, calling each other “amore,” and god knows what they’re talking about when they revert to Italian.

Octopus carpaccio

Located just off Bulabog Beach, Lanterna has a true island home vibe because it started as one. Gladys bought the property in the early 2000s when Bulabog Beach was only known to kiteboarders for its year-round winds strong enough to lift their kites high above the water.

“It was very quiet in this part of the island,” Gladys says, “but there were already signs that it would explode soon notwithstanding the lack of roads. Back then it was all dirt roads off the main road.”

The couple they built their beach house in 1993 (and started Lanterna bed and breakfast in 2014; and the restaurant in 2019). Luigi designed an open veranda beside the kitchen and dining room, Gladys decorated it with warm terra-cotta tiles, bamboo-backed cushioned seats and wooden tables in between.

The first time Luigi came to Boracay in 1988, he sat on the roof of a jeepney beside a pig. He didn’t own the pig. It was, like him, a passenger on an already overcrowded vehicle trying to make its way to the port to get to the island.

Once in a while, they would invite their close friends for dinner. Soon, the entire Italian community (there is quite a sizable one on the island) and local who’s who were frequenting Lanterna to partake of Luigi’s food.

Their friends would come not knowing what they would eat. If Luigi happened to find good catch from the fishermen during the day, he would make fish carpaccio; if there was good beef, he’d make straccetti di manzo (thinly sliced beef). But, always, there was pasta—cooked the way his mother did when he was a young boy growing up in Rome.

Lanterna’s Luigi Barbolla and Gladys Calonia.

“In the beginning, every day I would change the menu,” Luigi recalls. “I would tell them, if you like the food, pay; if you don’t like it, don’t pay.”

Needless to say, everyone paid.

Lanterna wasn’t open to the public, but nothing in Boracay stays a secret for too long. Word got out about this home with a lush garden and fantastic Italian food by a black-shirted, bandana-wearing chef with a shock of white hair. People wanted to bring other people to Lanterna.

So Gladys and Luigi finally opened it to the public—both the restaurant and five guest rooms.

Red beet pasta with walnut, pears and gorgonzola cream sauce.

13 pasta dishes

The favorites on Lanterna’s menu are the carpaccios (they’re in three serving sizes to account for solo diners). To be honest, I can eat every day for a week at Lanterna and just have their appetizers—but who’d want to miss Luigi’s pasta?

There’s octopus, fish and tenderloin carpaccios marinated in different ways, and for vegetarians there’s beet root (highly popular) and zucchini. There’s also the classic bruschetta and salmon variety.

Carpaccio platters.

Not on the menu but one you should ask if it’s available is the fried onion with anchovies on the side. Luigi marinates the anchovies caught fresh from Boracay’s waters with citrus and olive oil and won’t serve it until it’s ready (might be good to call in advance).  

There are 13 pasta dishes on Lanterna’s menu—all of them deserve to be tried at least once. My favorites (in this order) are the red beet pasta with walnut, pear and gorgonzola sauce; ravioli with ricotta and spinach; ravioli with pork, mortadella and parma ham; spaghetti carbonara; vongole; Genovese with slow-cooked beef; and rigatoni with eggplant.

If pasta’s not your thing (what a sad, sad life!), you can order quinoa, Greek or tuna salad; or go for the tuna confit served with salad and potato wedges, or the thinly sliced beef with arugula and parmesan shavings.

Seafood pasta.

For dessert, Lantera offers mango cheesecake, panna cotta, spiced banana a la mode, chocolate truffles, affogato, and homemade ice cream with berries.

There is no tiramisu because, Luigi says, a really good one has to be made fresh every time and he doesn’t want to stock it in the fridge.

I’ve attended two birthday parties in Lanterna and a couple of dinners—and we were always stuffed and happy at the end of the night. At one dinner, the German general manager of the island’s most expensive resort was there and Luigi told him, “We get a lot of guests from your hotel, they like to eat here.”

Lanterna is famous for intimate birthday parties.

The GM said good-naturedly, “That’s something I don’t want to hear, Luigi!”

We all laughed, but really, he looked a bit pained.

An island, a jeepney, and a pig

The first time Luigi Barbolla came to Boracay in 1988, he sat on the roof of a jeepney beside a pig. He didn’t own the pig. It was, like him, a passenger on an already overcrowded vehicle trying to make its way to the port to get to the island.

It would have been a WTF moment for any westerner except Luigi was an adventurer. For him, it was just one of those strange things in a new country with a shockingly beautiful island not many people had heard about. Least of all, someone from Rome where life was surrounded by art and antiquities.

There’s ravioli filled with pork, and one with ricotta and spinach.

He was 29, he had long hair and blue eyes—a hippie, a gypsy, a chef, a sailor. His spirit could not be contained in the Eternal City. He wanted to sail around the world—a dream he would later amend to “sail from Europe to Boracay and park my boat in front of the beach.”

Luigi simply says, “I was a gypsy.”

In the years before (and after) he first came to Boracay, he was traveling around the world including to South American countries that were in the middle of political and civil conflicts. He also traveled to Morocco, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, the Amazon, and Panama.

In the beginning, every day I would change the menu. I would tell them, if you like the food, pay; if you don’t like it, don’t pay. Needless to say, everyone paid.

Sometimes he sailed across the Mediterranean Sea, other times he went by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Nothing, it seemed, would make him put down roots…until he met and fell in love with Gladys Calonia, a 21-year-old girl from Davao studying in Manila.

Gladys was working at an Italian restaurant owned by Luigi’s friend. The first time she went out on a date with him, he was touchy-feely, which scared her, but in his defense Luigi says, “For Roma people, we really touch when they talk. It’s nothing bad. For me, it was natural, but for Filipinos, it was very different.”

Luigi explains his dishes.

She didn’t want another date also because she was working part-time to have money for her “luho” because her allowance from the province was sometimes sent late.The restaurant owner told Luigi that he should pay her salary so she could have free time to go on a date. Gladys didn’t know this at the time though she found it strange that she was being given so much time off.

“The first time I came to Boracay was when he took me here,” she says.

“I promised her I would take care of her but didn’t know what the future would bring,” Luigi says. He adds with a laugh, “In the beginning she didn’t like my parmigiano, she would throw it away. When I would come back to the house I would ask, where is my parmigiano? She’d say, ‘Baho!’ Now she wouldn’t have anything else.”

Live like a local at Lanterna Hotel.

He continues, “When I left, I told her I didn’t know when I would come back.” He was going to Tokyo, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Brazil.

“But every time I traveled, I always thought about this girl,” Luigi says.  

Telling this story at Lanterna 34 years later, Luigi takes her hand, and she gives him a little smile.

Seasonal living

Two years after they began their relationship, they had their daughter Kindra in 1990. The young family would spend the next decade or so following the seasons—working in Europe in the summer and coming back to the Philippines for winter.

Mango cheesecake.

Luigi would be working for three months in Tokyo and then come back to Boracay, and the following year they’d all be living in the Netherlands, France, Spain or Italy.

The first time Luigi brought his family to Italy, Gladys and baby Kindra took the cheapest airline and Luigi went from Asia to Europe by train through Siberia.

“We had no money,” he says, “but my family was excited to meet my wife and baby; she was the first granddaughter to be born.”

Salmon bruschetta.

In Italy, the young Gladys learned to cook from Luigi’s mother and speak Italian. “Our life was seasonal,” Luigi says. “Working in the summer in Europe and enjoying the winter in the Philippines. Our daughter was studying in international schools on the continent.”

There came a point when they thought they would settle down in Southern Spain. They bought a condo in Torremolinos just outside Malaga. “At the time it was cheap to buy a condo even in the high-end district,” Gladys says.

After years of living around the world, they finally decided to come back to the Philippines and settle in Boracay.

Greek salad.

These days, you’d see Luigi at the front beach in Aria, his white hair peeking out of his bandana, while Gladys would be kiteboarding at the back beach, or doing boxing or yoga at the shala they built on the rooftop of Lanterna. Then she’d attend to guests in the restaurant.

Luigi still nurses his dream of sailing around the world. Maybe he’ll take his daughter Kindra with him, he says.

“She’s like me, she’s a gypsy.”

Maybe father and daughter would revisit the countries he did as a young man. And because life goes around in a circle, at the end of this adventure they would park their boat on Bulabog Beach, and walk home to Gladys in Lanterna.