KATIE KELLY BELL - FORBES MAGAZINE
This unassuming Midwestern city may be best known as the home of the Gateway Arch, but Saint Louisans are equally proud of being the home of one of America’s most enduring Italian neighborhoods—The Hill. In fact, The Hill is arguably that last remaining “Little Italy” in the United States. But the proof is in the panna cotta and there can be no greater affirmation of St. Louis’ Italian bonafides than the much-awaited debut of Casa Don Alfonso—the first American outpost of the legendary two-star Michelin Don Alfonso 1890 in Sant’Agata, Italy. Casa Don Alfonso takes its place as the opulent flagship restaurant in the newly renovated Ritz-Carlton St. Louis. For Mario Iaccarino, CEO of Don Alfonso 1890 (which is very much a family-run restaurant), St. Louis was love at first sight. “From the moment I landed in St. Louis people welcomed me like family.” And, adds Iaccarino, “when residents from The Hill came to eat at Casa Don Alfonso and I heard them say, ‘Mario, I am dreaming of home, of my childhood.’ Well, then I knew we were going in the right direction.”
Indeed, it is impossible not to be transported while dining here. The house tomato sauce with its vivid blood-orange hue comes from tomatoes grown on the slopes of Vesuvius, and the organic olive oil hails from a small Sicilian producer. Even the server uniforms feature bow ties and scarves made at a small textile factory in Positano on the Amalfi coast.
In creating the menu, Iaccarino spent hours paging through his grandmother’s recipe books for inspiration. He wanted this menu to reflect both the traditional cuisine of Italy’s Amalfi coast as well as the region’s historic role as one of the first stops along the Silk Road. “So much of our cuisine was influenced by these cultures,” he explains. “The Casa Don Alfonso menu represents 2000 years of history as related to the Mediterranean, from the spices and vegetables to the wine and even the pasta, which originally came from China.” It also represents the best of Italian ingredients.
Consider the pasta. Says Iaccarino, “I did intensive research and study of every detail, not just recipes but design elements and products that we could bring to St. Louis.” At this point Iaccarino holds up a bag of pasta to the camera on our zoom call, “See this,” he says, pointing to the pasta, “This is what we are serving at Casa Don Alfonso. It is the best pasta you can buy in the world. When you eat our rigatoni, you eat the best rigatoni on earth. We want your meal to be a full cultural experience, when you close your eyes and eat our fritto misto we want you to smell the sea and feel the Neapolitan sunshine.”
You will taste Italian sunshine but there is so much more to this restaurant than an exquisite plate of food. The entire restaurant is a glorious temple to detail; right down to the dramatic display of 600 hand-blown glass leaves (which must be hand-polished every two weeks) that hover daintily over the main dining room. The massive open kitchen is pure culinary theatre with a hand-painted tiled backsplash and copper-clad ceiling that set the stage for the bustling squadron of toque-clad chefs.
The seating is an expansive spread of leather banquettes and plush chairs. The dining room energy is vibrant and electric but the seating and sound-proofing millwork is done in such a clever way that you’ll still enjoy a personal cocoon of quiet—and be able to hear your companions.
The menu is not a classic Italian menu. Grandma’s Ziti and the decadent Maccheroni Gratin (from Grandfather Alfonso’s recipe) are standouts, but so are innovative and fresh offerings such as vegan anti-aging soups or the ethereal marinated red snapper veils—paper thin slices of snapper laced with fresh herbs, pink peppercorn and topped with savory orange supreme and mint yogurt drizzle. A wood-fired pizza is always an option (Black Truffle or Calabrian Nduja anyone?) but our server points to the lasagna, which she proudly explains, “is made with short rib and takes three days to make.”
The Housemade Tagliatelli is light and delicate, laced with crab and lobster bisque and a dusting of marjoram and topped with plump tender shrimp. If you aren’t lost in the Mediterranean already, you surely will be with the Catch of the Day—fresh fish poached in a savory broth and presented tableside wrapped like a birthday present in a pretty translucent foil bag.
From the moment he arrived in the Show-Me State, Iaccarino felt as if St Louis was another home. “It was a natural place to build a second home for the restaurant,” he says; “I have met a community of really wonderful people here. We want Casa Don Alfonso to be a beautiful lady for St. Louis—a factory of happiness.”