Sorrento, the kind of place where you return. There are those that, when they arrive they decide to never leave. It happened to Alfonso Costanzo Iaccarino, he left for America but came back, then there was Herr Brandmeier. He visited Sorrento after completing a grand tour of Europe, he then decided that he would not return home, or go anywhere else for that matter.
It was 1890 and their paths crossed at Sant’Agata on the two gulfs, wherein a Neapolitan palace built in the 19th century they opened their restaurant, Don Alfonso 1890. Four generations later, the Iaccarino family have never left this part of the Sorrentine peninsula.
The Amalfi coast to one side, the Gulf of Naples to the other. Capri and Anacapri are a few miles away. This is a paradise made from a glistening sea, lemons that mature in the sun and the smell of the Mediterranean. It’s colour, beauty and life: these are the ingredients that Ernesto uses to this day, the last of the Iaccarino generation. He has made this simple, small place a Mecca of gourmet cuisine for the rest of the world, where today’s new style of grand tour occurs; one where the visitor is there to eat in a two Michelin Star restaurant and how one may stay in one of the world’s most beautiful locations. This is the symbol of the gourmet cuisine of Italy.
Don Alfonso’s mission has always been; love for the territory, respect for the identity of the Mediterranean and a tip of the hat towards innovation. It’s been ahead of its time since the 90s and early 2000’s where to reach the height of gourmet cuisine it has never lost its mission nor its ties with the past. There is a traditional Italian saying, “E figlie so’ ppiezz”e còre”, children are a piece of the heart, and in today’s incarnation of Don Alfonso there is that of Ernesto, who is bringing the traditions of the past into a modern setting. In fact, he keeps them alive, through every conception, every new idea, every single day.
They have their own farm, Le Peracciole. Now, run by the father, Alfonso, who is more at home in the land than in one of the rooms it’s clear to see how this relationship with the produce, the land the whole territory has come to be and how it affects the food they make. The Iaccarino universe is a triad, made up of a restaurant, a boutique hotel and eight hectares of cultivated, biological farmland in the wilderness of the Sorrentine Peninsula. They produce extra-fine virgin olive oil keeping the best produce for the restaurant and of course, their fine lemon liquor is also produced here. “For us, great food comes from the ground, as great wine comes from the vines in the vineyard.” Father and son repeat this phrase, in unison, continually.
Ernesto’s style is characterised by emotions, memories, combinations of flavours, a recipe, an ingredient from the orchards, they’re all inspirations for him. Olive oil has a culture to it, there’s a vegetable part, there is a sea part. These are the primary ingredients for him and his style.
The iconic plate is spaghetti al pomodoro; it’s a luxury of simplicity, the recipe that brings together only three elements but a history of a thousand years, of a land, of an entire Italian people. If there were an archetypal recipe and execution, this would be it. It’s a paradox. It’s a poor man’s dish and easily dismissed as such, but here, where they know how to turn it into fine dining. Only by understanding the context, the ingredients, the people can you truly turn it into something of a higher level.
Rugged pasta from Gragnano, tomatoes from the vesuvian territories, bursting with flavour, character, sharpness and acidity; olive oil, garlic and basil. Boiling water, salty like the sea. There is no secret, apart from the DNA that lies behind all of these ingredients.
There are smoking pans, roasting trays bounce in the ovens and flames flicker. Technology and technique combine, yet there is a firm eye on the past, you can’t help but notice that anything done to make this quicker is wasted; here, in the kitchen is where you see that vision in its full glory. The staff want their guests to be transported, taken somewhere old, to reconnect, to get emotionally attached, they know how to do it.
It is, however, more than a kitchen. Livia runs the hotel that sits alongside this stunning kitchen. She is the heart and soul of the rooms, the service, everything. Then, there is Mario, Alfonso’s brother, Ernesto’s uncle. Not unlike his grandfather, he returned to Sorrento after having studied in Geneva and worked in hotels across France and Germany; he knows how to look after guests, he curates a wine cellar with over 25,000 prestigious bottles, 1300 different labels from around the world, as well as some of the most sought after varieties in Campania. From young producers to world famous varieties, he has a sample of everything that could delight, and render meals truly unique.
The south of Italy is all about colour, flavour and the sun. It is the homeland of first courses, fresh pasta, dried pasta and rice, all of which are the fundamentals of the Don Alfonso menu. Spaghetti with tuna, breadcrumbs, pine nuts and caramelized onions on albacore tuna sauce is a take on another Italian classic, spaghetti with oil, chili and garlic but takes it further than imagined. Grated bread, onions and that use of fish is just an extension of ideas and fantasy designed to take something simple and elevate the dish. Paccheri cacio e pepe is exalted with diced redfish whilst to finish the selection of first courses, lo Gnocco, water and flour with smoked mozzarella and vesuvian tomato injected into the centre.
Risotto is nordic but here, the carnaroli bean becomes something unique, something different. Together with almond milk, shellfish, wild spinach and white pepper, this is fusion cooking at its best. There is risotto cooked in cedar scent with shrimp, seaweed, sea urchins, it’s a statement about the coastline, the ingredients and how you can easily voyage between the sea and land with this visionary piece of cooking.
Neapolitan flavours are however always present, and that’s clear to see from the menu which in just one glance hits you with everything you needed to know, and will taste with one mouthful. Nothing says Naples more than the dish, il Vulcano. (The Volcano) Rigatoni from gragnano, mozzarella, ricotta and peas, beef and pork meatballs. It’s a triumph of opulence, like the sweet and sour lobster doughnut with a citrus infusion or the soffiato di mozzarella (mozzarella mousse) which is accompanied with san marzano tomatoes basil made crisp wavers. They are dishes that will stand the test of time.
Chocolate and aubergine is the kind of combination that would shock both the traditionalist and experimental chef, but perhaps that is what they were looking for. Here a mille fieu is served with white, creamy chocolate, but that’s not all. There is aubergine with cream and chocolate bread in an amuse bouche style. When it comes to dessert, the traditional babà is a triumph, it’s perfect, beyond perfect. It’s packed with flavour, it hits you with lemon, but it’s done elegantly and to a different level.
If fish is the real star, you’d be forgiven for stepping away from the stereotypes and trying the beef tenderloin, coated in a bread topping, mozzarella, pigs cheek, spicy tomato sauce and Neapolitan broccoli. The lamb has fresh herbs from the Mediterranean, the pork torelli have parmesan and fondue truffles. Truffles are a recurring theme, they appear even in the re-interpretation of a fried egg. Burata cheese is used to recreate the egg white, the egg is cooked at a low temperature and only the yolk is used, it is then placed on a bed of truffles and beans; this is an interpretation of a chef’s childhood memory, warm milk, and tiny truffle shavings, all for breakfast.
When you close your eyes and think of Sorrento, Capri & Amalfi, you think of sun and the sea, and in fairness, Don Alfonso lives from Spring to Summer, sometimes Autumn when, if you were to live in Northern Italy, you would be wearing a big coat, whilst in the south you would be sat on the terrace eating and drinking. The Mediterranean diet is that way, full of colour, life, an explosion of fruit and vegetables.
For years the south’s war horse has been the Parmigiana di melanzane, a tower made of layers of aubergine, tomato, mozzarella and a basil leaves; it’s a dish still on the menu, it’s a manifesto dish, one that says everything you need to know about the food culture of this restaurant. It’s an ode to what happens next thanks to the Campanella farm, where vegetables are gathered, prepared, consumed based on the season, a demonstration of agricultural biodiversity for the area.
Ernesto has never known a different life. He has travelled, he studied economics in Milan, but like those who leave Sorrento, he returned. His personal dynasty is his palette, his hands, his vision and the analytical and methodical approach that allows him to focus on specific goals. Today’s Don Alfonso is a perfect demonstration of this. Since 1999, he has run the restaurant, he defines himself as a perfectionist, competitive, a father and a traveller. In 2016 he married the love of his life, Mariangela Matera Sanseverino. A young pastry chef, they have much in common. They were both brought up in the area, they are the children of restaurateurs and cooks, they have an understanding of each other. For six months a year, they escape to New Zealand where Don Alfonso has opened a new restaurant at St Helena Bay. It is not their first foreign opening, it follows two other restaurants in Macau and Marrakech.
Southern Italian cooking is always good, it’s a given. Whether it is fish with mozzarella, smoked cheese and burata, it breaks all the tabu’s that are given abroad about combining food from the land and that from the sea. Extra virgin olive oil dominates both within cooking and seasoning, it’s a fine use of fats to add flavour without adding ruining the dish.
If on one hand, fruits of the land are essential for Italian cooking, like olive oil, bread, vegetables, like the prescribed Mediterranean diet, then the Neapolitan diet asks for more. It asks to be a combination of elements, it asks to be stuffed full of flavours, it’s never about taking away, it’s about adding, all the time. Neapolitan gastronomy is about taking those classic, stuffed dishes and searching for a way to elevate them.
In the kitchen, Ernesto has taken a step back, all the way to his great grandfather to analyse, discuss and understand the flavours of then, and modernising them with a simple endgame; something that can combine yesterday, and today.
His eel ice cream with caviar, an emulsion of wild herbs, rosehip noodles and crumbled organic egg yolk has been defined by Ferran Adria as simply, “ludicrous”. His Salsiccia, is a sausage that is prepared the way you would with meat with a distinct difference, he uses a blue spotted sea bream, little known outside of the Parthenopean coast, but adored by the people. It is an ode to the old recipes, using a fish and black truffle combination to create the dish. It is seasoned classically with salt, pepper, fennel seeds, a little olive oil extra virgin olive oil and plenty of white wine. There is no skin, instead, it is a simple filo dough and quick baked. It is served with zucchini and black truffles, candied clementine cream, radish sprouts and extra virgin olive oil, naturally from the family’s farmland.
There is a bit of everything in Don Alfonso’s kitchen. Territory, history, service, flavours and attention to detail. You get everything from the details, from the secular mission to raise the standard of Parthenopean cooking to a level of elite gastronomy.
If in France, luxury dining is foie gras, then in Campania, the tomato must be the epicentre of local gastronomy; so much can be achieved with so little. Campania is the region with the biggest agricultural production of tomatoes in the nation. Why? Because there isn’t a lot of waste from their production. If you want to make a sauce, you use San Marzano. If you want a salad, beef tomatoes from Salento are the ideal variety. Pizza and spaghetti, small, cherry tomatoes.
Pigeons, ducks, even chickens have left their mark at Don Alfonso. These are precisely the types of ingredients that Michelin starred restaurants use as primary ingredients, like at Don Alfonso where a fresh pasta dish is again elevated with chicken, onion sauce, parmesan and black truffle. Ernesto has taken a humble onion skin, filled it with tuna, chopped pistachios, lemon and soy sauce, giving it a taste of the east whilst cooking it on coals with tiny shrimp and adding flavours of Irpinia with it’s black olives as a twist back to the chef’s origins.
On the menu there is a famous saying from, Eduardo De Filippo; “Only after studying, developing our knowledge and respecting our traditions, you have the right to put it to the side, however, always remembering that we are in debt, at least in part, to have contributed to new ideas. Naturally, if you stay in the past, life stands still, however, if we look to the past as a sort of trampoline, then it is obvious that we can go even further.”
Alfonso understood the importance of territorial identity, that’s why he combined fine dining with hospitality a sort of Relax & Chateaux, run like a swiss watch, with one of the best wine cellars in the South of Italy, if not the world. Today’s recent renovations are another way of showing how style and design have influenced their food and made it so noteworthy.
The lighting is vivid, rose, lilac, yellow, orange colours transport you from the rooms to the gardens, the sea, the Mediterranean. Nothing is minimal, items and objects from Naples in the 1800’s add to the atmosphere, like the characters that work there. Colour and life is everywhere, none more so than in the kitchen. Because at Don Alfonso, the walls are tiled with the colours of the sun, the land, the sea, it is anything but clinical. It is always summer, spring, every day is a new day after a century of operating, and if anything, there is nothing here that suggests that time will stand still and that nothing will stop them from writing a new chapter in Southern Italian gastronomy.