How do you start writing about a weekend revolving around Italian food that is very likely to leave a lasting impression for the rest of your life? How do you sum up thoughts and memories about countless wonderful food courses, unbelievable passionate chefs who created them in the first place and the amazing hospitality of the Iacarrino family? You can’t. I don’t think written words can do our weekend at Don Alfonso 1890 justice, but I’ll try anyway.
Our recent trip to Italy has been a blast and I don’t say this lightly. Our travel schedule has been pretty packed this year and we’ve seen more than our share of beautiful places, met great people alongside and made the occasional culinary discovery. Yet the three days we spent upon invitation at Don Alfonso 1890 doesn’t compare to anything we’ve experienced so far.
After we met our food blogger friends at the Naples station we were picked up by our driver and moments later on our way further into the South of Campania. Just one and a half hours and many winding roads later we passed the city limits of Sant’Agata sui due Golfi and stepped into the world of the Iaccarino family – this may sound like the worst PR cliché, yet is so true – their warm welcome made everybody feel part of it. Within minutes the library was filled with chatter and laughter, sort of what you’d expect, when food bloggers from all over the world meet.
As soon as we were brought to our suite, Oliver and I quickly made a pact to never again leave this place. We felt home immediately. A pink dream with a bathroom arisen straight from The Arabian Nights. Vibrant colors everywhere, matched by the incredible sunset on our first night.
Elegant, spacious and equipped with a mix of vintage artifacts from the Iaccarino family, precious lusters and aesthetic furniture. A patio too big for words. And please don’t get me started on their love and attention to details, from the organic handmade soaps to the colorful tiles and mattresses, they try to have everything made from local artisans.
Just settled, we were served an impromptu lunch which we didn’t expect – and it began to dawn on all of us, that a fantastic weekend was ahead. Signature dishes like the Vesuvius pasta (Vesuvius of rigatoni filled with small meatballs, “fior di latte” and basil on a light San Marzano tomato cream) or new creations (Babà with wild berry jelly and zabaglione of “Bollicine”) gave a first glimpse of the restaurant’s potential, producing very delighted faces around the lunch table.
After lunch we happily followed an invitation to climb down a few flights of stairs and were introduced to la cantina, an incredible wine cellar comprised of roughly 25.000 bottles featuring 1.300 different labels. While the first two rooms date back to the 17th century, just 25 years ago the Iaccarinos discovered an even older part, including a tunnel dating back to the ancient Romans (25 meters underground). A natural water well at the end of the tunnel ensures the humidity necessary to age extraordinary cheeses down there.
A little background about Don Alfonso 1890: While the Iaccarino family has been in the hotel business for almost 120 years now and Don Alfonso’s grandson Alfonso was running their family’s hotel together with his wife Livia during the early 1970s, the charismatic couple was striving for something else. They sneaked into the hotel kitchen at night – they had to secretly “borrow” the key from his mother’s apron – just to spend night after night in front of the stove, finishing his own pasta creations, but still struggling with his idea of the perfect chocolate soufflé. Since their parents wanted to wet the young couple’s appetite for the hotel business even more, they sent them around the globe. Which in the end triggered the exact opposite: Alfonso and Livia discovered their love to haute cuisine, a visit to Tokyo’s fish market led to a significant decision: to hand over the hotel’s management and open a restaurant in an empty family space in Sant’Agata sui due Golfi. This was back in 1973, the restaurant Don Alfonso 1890 was born. Yet their way to the top was paved with various obstacles, scepsis of their family as well as locals did its share. It was not till the early 80s, when the Mediterranean cuisine of their restaurant became famous and earned them their first Michelin star (1985). But they didn’t stop there…
One thing that stroke us the most: Everybody who belongs to Don Alfonso 1890, may it be family, the team at the kitchen, the sommelier or the service staff, everybody thinks, breathes and radiates their concept of quality and tradition. Everything they do feels just so natural, genuine, true – and yet, consistently meeting highest standards. I doubt that I ever experienced such light-footed and flawless service in a restaurant (not even at The French Laundry). Oliver attested them psychic ability to read minds, they were always there before you’d finish your thought, but never intrusive or over-ambitious.
Same with the kitchen crew, we we’re welcomed to their fabulous working place at all times and experienced a fantastic team, that could go from 0 to 100 – prep work to plating – within seconds. If I was a chef, this would be the kitchen and the team I would want to work with.
Saturday was reserved for cooking lessons at their own cooking school, a place everybody fell in love with at first sight. The interior, the hand-painted tiles, those pots and pans! Together with the cooks we prepared four of their signature dishes and learned one or the other detail about truffles, tomatoes and baby squids.
A brief lunch break brought us back to the simple, but by no means less enjoyable pleasures – pizza, Neapolitan style. An old experienced pizzaiolo from Naples let us in on the tricks of the trade and everybody was welcomed to make their own pizza. The fact that the pizza-oven is fired with their own olive wood from their farm was another small detail that illustrates how consequently the Iaccarinos live up to their principles.
But there is always room for dessert, right? Two of the younger cooks showcased and plated a very unusual dessert: eggplant millefeuilles with white and dark chocolate sauce. Just typing this makes my mouth water again, taste & consistency ahh, sigh…
All in all we’ve enjoyed many wonderful multi-course meals over the weekend and it’s impossible to pin down our favorite ones – as each and every dish was special in its own way. A single lemon (a local one, mind you) or an egg could shine just as much as a dish with lobster, oyster or truffle. The quality of the produce was outstanding and hardly comparable to what we get here around the corner. Everything was seasonal and local, mostly from their own farm. Again the love to detail as well as their dedication and pure passion shows throughout, but becomes unmistakeably clear when Alfonso and his son Ernesto talks about their profession: “Each dish is prepared with skillful professionalism, but above all with the heart.”
Their menu top down showcases their perception of food, it’s a balanced choice of traditional dishes (some dating back almost two decades), reinvented classics or new creations. Like Ernesto says: “We want to be modern, but keeping our Mediterranean identity.”
Another highlight of the trip were the round table discussions we had before dinner, allowing us to exchange thoughts, talk about the differences in food-writing between classic media and blogs, the restaurant scene of our countries (from Italy, Germany and the UK to the US, Brasil and Japan) or simply reflect on any food-related topic that came to mind.
How many chefs have you heard emphasizing how much they enjoy working with local and seasonal ingredients? Many? Most of them? Without a doubt, it’s a popular statement, but ultimately a gastronomical goal that really does make sense. That’s why the Iaccarino family decided to grow their own vegetables and fruit – long before this movement began to loom in recent years. In 1986 they started with a piece of land near Positano, 1990 they acquired Le Peracciole on one of Italy’s most beautiful coast-lines Punta Campanella, an idle lying slope facing the island of Capri, that they turned into their farmhouse business and even have certified organic. With this background and context, “local & seasonal” has a completely new quality to it.
“…Come on baby lets get away. Let’s save your troubles for another day. Come go with me we’ve got it made. Let me take you on an escapade…” – if you believe me or not, this was the song that was playing in the car radio when Livia drove us down to Punta Campanella. And it matched so perfectly:
As she guarded us down the narrow winding path, you could feel how excited she was to show us the place that was so close to her family’s heart. “This is our paradise.” she said and her eyes sparkled with joy.
I’m not sure I can recall even half of what’s being harvested there, tomatoes, olives, every herb you could possible wish for, eggplants, artichokes, zucchini, pumpkins, grapes, figs, not to forget their huge limonaia, where you find the most fragrant lemons, oranges and pomelos. Indeed, this was paradise, a heavenly camp ground for the culinary inclined!
We strolled through the steep groves, nibbling away sweet grapes and smelling different citrus fruits the Amalfi coast is famous for. Alfonso joined us and together with his wife he explained why this place was the key to their take on the Mediterranean cuisine. And as if these impressions weren’t enough to forever take a place in our hearts, we were waved Goodbye with a picture-perfect sunset over Capri.
Oh, I almost forgot! Last but not least we also visited Italy’s only organic water buffalo dairy farm, Tenuta Vannulo, where we learned about their breeding philosophy, how the introduction of smart machinery (leaving it up to the buffalo to decide when it’s a good time to be milked) not only changed the milking process, but clearly reduces stress for the buffaloes. Ultimately resulting in superior products (think mozzarella, ricotta, yoghurt, ice cream,…), that are in such high demand, that they are sold exclusively in their shop on the farm – no distribution system at all. After a little tasting we understood why. Have you ever had lunch consisting of nothing else but mozzarella and ricotta (and maybe a tiny amount of bread and tomatoes)? We have. And we would love to do it again. And again….
Those three days were simply amazing. No matter how much of Italy you have seen or experienced, Don Alfonso 1890 will simply set new standards. Will you be spoiled afterwards? Quite likely. Will you suffer from withdrawal? Heavily. However, it would be a sin to not pay Alfonso, Livia, Ernesto and Mario (Don Alfonso 1890) a visit if you plan on traveling to the Southern part of Italy.
Full disclosure: Our stay was provided courtesy of family Iaccarino, transportation paid by ourselves.