Italy’s Legendary Don Alfonso 1890 Opens a US Outpost in St. Louis – Robb Report
A few years ago, during a trip to the Italian coasts of Sorrento and Amalfi, I followed the example of almost 50 years of gourmets and made my way to the tiny mountain town of Sant’Agata dui Due Golfi, overlooking the bays of Salerno and Naples. There, on a quiet main street and behind an indescribable gate, is Don Alfonso 1890, the intimate, Michelin-starred restaurant known for its menus of fine yet authentic regional cuisine made from the restaurant’s ingredients will own nearby organic farm and orchards.
My dinner alone was worth the detour from the coast – full of sophisticated and playful dishes – but as I discovered during my meal and an overnight stay in the B&B-style rooms above the restaurant, the fascination of Don Alfonso is about more than the food. It’s about how the sociable, welcoming Iaccarinos – husband and wife Alfonso and Livia, who founded the restaurant in 1973, and sons Ernesto (the chef) and Mario (the restaurateur) – immediately make everyone feel like family . (Just try to leave without putting a jar of their organically preserved tomatoes in your hands.)
It’s a formula for success that has also led several international guests over the years to propose that the Iaccarinos open a Don Alfonso in their own hometowns, wherever in the world they are. The family opened a consulting branch about 25 years ago and have since opened both permanent and pop-up restaurants in places like New Zealand, Morocco, Canada, and Macau. The US never seemed to be an option, however – until some avid guests from St. Louis connected Mario Iaccarino (who oversees the consulting business) with friends who own a luxury hotel in the city of Missouri. On March 21, the outcome of that meeting will come to life when Don Alfonso unveils his first US outpost – Casa Don Alfonso – at the recently relaunched Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis.
The glass sculptures hanging from the ceiling are reminiscent of the lavender fields of Sant’Agata.
Photo: courtesy of Don Alfonso
“We don’t start with an idea of where we want to go – people are interested and come up to us, and it just happens,” says Iaccarino of the establishment of the American outpost. However, when it comes to the why of St. Louis, he’s much more exuberant. “From the first moment I walked into the hotel, I felt a lot like Don Alfonso’s in Italy – I felt like I was entering a family because that’s how they work. We reflect on the same ideas, so I felt we had to do something here. It might sound strange, but I was in a familiar place, even though I’d never been in town before. “
For this incarnation, Iaccarino has turned away from the formula of good food and opted for something that, in his opinion, better suits the location, meets the needs of hotel guests and reflects the current state of the world. “We eat well in Italy, but we never take ourselves too seriously, and Casa Don Alfonso will represent that more casual feeling,” he explains. “Right now, with everything we all go through, the goal of restaurants should be to let people relax – to be a place of ease and happiness. People are tired and we want to go to restaurants to enjoy the experience and not be intimidated by the maitre’d! We started long before Covid-19, but I think this might actually be the right moment for this type of project. “
The approach begins with the design of the restaurant with 140 seats, which offers guests the opportunity to sit in the main dining room, in a relaxed lounge or at counters around the open kitchen and the wood-fired pizza oven. Colorful hand-painted tiles by Italian ceramist Giovanni de Maio line the kitchen, while Mediterranean-inspired paintings by Italian artist Anna Russo – a friend of the Iaccarinos – and photos of the family hang at home. The light purple accents and the cascading glass and wisteria chandelier are a nod to the lavender fields of Sant’Agata.
In order to develop the culinary concept, Iaccarino and his team carried out a “thorough study of the food culture of the regions of Naples and Campagna, in which the sea is the protagonist and in which there is historically a mixture of both cultures for a year and a half. We looked into a world that no longer exists. “The resulting menus reflect” the dishes I would eat if I went to my grandmother’s for Sunday lunch, “he says,” but the original versions, not the modified recipes we know today. ” For example, lasagna is “the original Neapolitan interpretation. No Bolognese, no minced meat – just large pieces of meat that we slowly cook with red wine, carrots, celery and bay leaves for about five hours, then cut into slices and add to the pasta with ricotta. And hard-boiled eggs – that’s how you know this came from a real Neapolitan grandmother. “There will also be coastal favorites like fish acqua pazza and fritto misto, as they do on the streets of Naples, as well as traditional pizzas, pastas (like ziti, baked with anchovies on the Amalfi coast, and noodles mixed with potatoes and smoked scamorza). Rediscovery ”of chicken cacciatore and a selection of vegan and gluten-free“ anti-aging soups ”.
The dishes reflect the reverence for traditional Neapolitan cuisine.
Photo: courtesy of Don Alfonso
“We make the classics in a simple and healthier way, which goes back to the roots of the Mediterranean diet,” explains Iaccarino. “I can say that the menu is similar to Don Alfonso’s menu in 1890 for the first 15 years – all those simple things that are part of our tradition and a preservation of our history. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that traditional food is also the food of the future. I really think that’s what the world expects when it’s at the table for the next 50 years. “
Some of the main ingredients – including extra virgin olive oil and dried pasta, as well as wines and Don Alfonso’s house lemoncello – will be shipped from Italy, but the team will also work with local suppliers to offer fresh proteins and products. But the most important thing the Iaccarinos want to import into the US is their hospitality. “Italian cuisine in this country has a historical value and brings together all these generations of families who are so attached to their traditions. So when I think of these authentic Casa Don Alfonso recipes, I think of my family and of bringing a small part of us to you. “