Casa Don Alfonso now open at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis
Internationally inspired restaurants often vow to copy the cuisine of the country in which the dishes were created. Some even try to transport the guest around the globe in order to recreate an unforgettable holiday meal down to the nuances. There is no better place in St. Louis than Casa Don Alfonso, located in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, and no one explains it better than the restaurant’s manager, Alen Tanovic.
“The commitment of the guest is of the utmost importance,” says Tanovic. “While food matters, how a guest feels after it is just as important. That’s the part that brings you back. “
The Atlanta-based Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry was hired to recreate the Italian flagship in as many ways as possible. To say the design is dramatic is a gross understatement. The kitchen, including a solid copper roof and Italian hand-painted lavender tiles, was designed to evoke the same design elements used in Neapolitan villages, explains Mario Iaccarino, whose family is Don Alfonso in 1890, the two Michelin-starred mothership in Sant ‘ Agata, Italy, along with an adjacent boutique hotel. “There are tiles in the courtyard that are 300 years old and get more beautiful over time,” he says.
Regardless of the culinary sophistication, observers will appreciate the size of the kitchen in Casa Don Alfonso – the largest open kitchen in the subway area. There are four separate islands (each responsible for making specific menu items). The hotline is on the opposite wall. (In European kitchens, the cooking areas are also usually set up on islands.)
A kilometer of quartzite counter defines the kitchen area. The pick-up area is heated from above as well as from below with induction heating, which turns any buffet service into an even, star-free breeze.
At the far end there is counter seating overlooking a fresh pasta extruder, a dough machine with mixing blades that mimic human fingers, and a chef stretching tender doughs to create real Neapolitan pizzas, a style that requires a trained pizzaiolo. Enter Chef Jeff Mondaca, who, according to Iaccarino, learned from the “Pizza Chef of Naples” in New York City.
Casa Don Alfonso recreates the Italian flagship in as many ways as possible. Through a separate entrance, only a few steps away from the Porte Cochère, wide arches end at the fetching, U-shaped casa bar with a marble top. Behind the bar there are two temperature-controlled wine cellars (at 45 and 55 degrees), in which, according to Tanovic, 3,024 bottles are currently stored.
First-time visitors can celebrate their discovery with a glass of Prosecco, a Negroni or one of several typical cocktails such as the Filippo Bianco (with Pinot Grigio, Cappelletti liqueur, orange syrup and mineral water) or the Malfy Gin Cocktail, Wisteria Skies, a tribute to the fragrant , purple flowering vine observed in 1890.
Wisteria are represented abstractly throughout the restaurant. (The lavender reflections of the 600 hanging crystal leaves alone are worth a visit.) The Casa Lounge surrounds the bar with comfy groupings, curvy love seats, and an L-shaped banquet made of blue velor that sits in a corner where guests can eat, drink, or simply just relax.
“Meals can be enjoyed wherever the guest feels comfortable,” says Tanovic. “If it works for you, it works for us.”
In the dining room, quarter-round cabins are set up one behind the other to close a circle. Natural light bathes a series of oval tables and curved seats. Intimate tables for two with leather armchairs also emphasize the space.
“It’s really unique from an interior design perspective,” says Tanovic. “The idea is to take guests on a short break to the Sorrento coast to bring a bit of Sant’Agata here.” This endeavor is facilitated by numerous paintings by Anna Russo, a friend of the Iacarrino family, whose works are also part of the decor from 1890. “The paintings reflect the hallmarks of the Sant’Agata region,” says Tanovic. “Wisteria, lavender, olive trees, lemon trees, flowers, water …” Vesuvius appears subtly in the background; in others it is the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri.
Tanovic explains the mood with the words: “It’s like being in an Italian village. Aliveness surrounds you. It gives you the experience, but your immediate space can be private: at an oval table, in the lounge or at the kitchen counter, right in the middle of the action. “
When fully occupied, the main room offers space for 86 people, plus 40 in the bar and 30 on the terrace. A private dining area (created by ribbed glass sliding doors) seats up to 16 people. Casa Don Alfonso serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, replacing the hotel’s two previous restaurants, the restaurant (which serves breakfast and lunch) and the Grill (which serves dinner). The Cigar Club still exists, but has also been rebuilt.
“We faced the pandemic early in the design process, so we could easily plan it,” says Tanovic. “Casa Don Alfonso was supposed to be spacious even before seating restrictions were put in place. The restaurant will be 50 percent full both inside and on the small terrace. Reservations are therefore always recommended. “
The menus are based on dishes rooted in Iacarrino’s childhood. The things he remembers eating at his grandmother’s house have been recreated in a modern and casual atmosphere. “Diners will enjoy a cultural experience from a world that no longer exists,” he says. “Some of the recipes are 100 years old.”
Tanovic adds that part of the mission is to start a conversation about how and why food can taste differently than previously thought, starting with the Italian environment where products are grown. And so the tomato product that is used in Casa Don Alfonso – the passata – is the same one that is used in Sant’Agata. The same applies to the Sicilian olive oil, which Iaccarino describes as “dull and elegant”, as well as to the dried pasta, which is made in a small factory near Naples. The lemons that house Limoncello are made from are grown on the family farm. “We wanted to take over all of the products we use,” he explains, “but there is an import fee for every item, which makes small shipments unaffordable.”
There is a personal story behind every dish. The Napoletana lasagna is the same version that his grandmother served. “In Italy you have Bolognese lasagna with finely chopped meat or meat cut into larger pieces, as is served in Naples,” he says. “We add ricotta, mozzarella, and hard-boiled eggs, which might seem unusual. The dish is rich but not heavy as it does not contain butter or cream.
“One dish that is common in Italy, but not so common here, is pasta with potatoes,” he continues. The fresh pasta cooks in a fragrant potato stew and is topped off with Seamorza cheese. The type of pasta used is the versatile straccetti (“little rags” in Italian), a square, twisted pasta. “My dad still eats this dish,” he says.
The maccheroni gratin consists of baked ziti noodles with cherry tomatoes and bechamel, the same dish Iaccarino’s grandmother served him once a week. The same tomatoes liven up the Pizza Bread Bruschetta, a divisible starter (see picture above).
The eggplant Parmigiana consists of thin, fried eggplant slices. The Fritto Misto includes arancini and fried mozzarella, as well as fried vegetables.
The Zuppe (referred to here as “anti-aging soups”) particularly points to the plant-based Mediterranean diet: no cream, no dairy products, no animal fat and completely made from scratch. The base contains carrots, celery, onions and the main ingredient. Five different versions are presented together with crostini, herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and chillies in a copper pot on a handmade Italian tile. Garnish to your taste. Thickened only with pureed vegetables, “the taste is creamy, but there is no cream,” says Iaccarino.
According to Iaccarino, the most popular product in Sorrentine restaurants is baked gnocchi. “We don’t use eggs as binders,” he says. “It’s just potatoes with a little flour.” On the Sorrento Peninsula, seafood is often poached in a herbal broth called aqua pazza (which means “crazy water”). At Casa Don Alfonso, Chicken Cacciatora, the traditional hunter’s stew, is served with potatoes pureed with olive oil and milk, not butter.
Iaccarino is especially proud of the Rack of Colorado Lamb, fried and finished in the oven with lemon peel, olive oil, and a little salt, but no pepper. (“At Casa Don Alfonso we use very little pepper,” says Iaccarino.) The chops are transferred to a wooden board and served with fried potatoes and onions.
Half a dozen types of Neapolitan pizza as well as house bread and foccacia are made in a gas-fired Moretti oven made in Italy.
In addition to long-time chef Melissa Lee, chef Sergio Chierego is also in the kitchen. Chierego is originally from Cagliari, Italy. He left Azzurro at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh to join the team at Casa Don Alfonso.
The chefs have put together different menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. It is worth mentioning the espresso that is served in the espresso bar, which is open at 6:30 a.m. every day. The beans, which were also used by Don Alfonso in 1890, are roasted over oak, olive, orange and lemon woods.
“When you grind the beans, those flavors explode,” says Iaccarino. “This type of roasting is unique in Italy, so I know it is unique here.”
Another must-have: three types of cold-pressed juice mixes that are pressed and bottled every day. Options include green apple / mint / celery, orange / lemon / carrot / turmeric / ginger, and the most popular beet / berry / ginger. The bottles are also available to take away and come with a bottle opener from Casa Don Alfonso.
“Casa Don Alfonso is based on the concept that traditional food – the cuisine of my memory – is also the food of the future,” says Iaccarino, referring to both Don Alfonso 1890 and Casa Don Alfonso, the family’s first restaurant in the USA. Heritage and tradition have vanished around the world, but certain past food traditions – like the Mediterranean Diet – are a rare diamond that must endure in the future. Eating healthy is the future. You can eat like this every day of your life, and you will live longer if you do. “
The wisteria vines bloom in Italy every May. A stylish interpretation can be experienced all year round at Casa Don Alfonso. The latter trip does not need to be postponed.