SANDRA RAMANI - La Cucina Italiana
We got the scoop on the more casual Casa Don Alfonso, which will open in St. Louis in late February.
For many travelers to the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento peninsula, no visit is complete without a meal at Don Alfonso 1890. Run by the Iaccarino family, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the hilltop village of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi has for decades been treating diners to elevated—but still authentic—regional cuisine crafted using high-quality ingredients, many sourced from the family’s nearby organic farm. With husband and wife Alfonso and Livia (who founded this incarnation of the restaurant in 1973) welcoming and chatting with guests, their son Mario serving as restaurateur and son Ernesto working his magic in the kitchen, a meal here is also a family affair—with guests quickly feeling like part of the fold.
It’s this family atmosphere that the Iaccarinos want to export to America with the opening of their first US venture. While their consulting arm has previously opened Don Alfonso outposts in destinations like Macau, New Zealand and Canada, those restaurants were more in line with the original location’s fine dining focus. But Casa Don Alfonso—which is set to open at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis in late-February 2021—will be a “casual interpretation of what we do in Sant’Agata,” says Mario Iaccarino, who has spearheaded the development of the project. An open kitchen, photos of the Iaccarinos, hand-painted Italian ceramic tiles and a color palette inspired by the lavender fields of Sant’Agata will help set that scene.
We chatted with Iaccarino about how the first US Don Alfonso came about, the culinary connections between Italy and the States, and how Casa Don Alfonso’s menu will reflect “the real recipes of the grandmothers.
Having had the pleasure of dining at Don Alfonso 1890, it was exciting to hear that you will be opening in the US. How did the project come about?
We have been in the consulting business for about 25 years, and have done a few projects around the world during that time. Opening in another location is always the best way to learn about a culture—and every time we do it, we get as much out of the experience as we give. But we aren’t the ones who first select where to go; it happens based on interest, and people approach us. This idea came about a couple of years ago, when a friend of the owners of the new The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis dined with us in Italy, and then suggested us to the hotel owners.
Why did you feel like this would be a good fit—and that St. Louis should be the location for your first US restaurant?
I decided to go to St. Louis for the meeting and, honestly, from the first moment I arrived at the hotel, I felt at home. They operate with a very similar attitude as what we have at Don Alfonso, and reflect the same ideas. The hotel’s General Manager, Amanda Joiner, and her team operate the hotel like a family, and from the first moment, I had had the feeling that I was entering into a family. That’s why I felt that we had to do something there. It may sound strange, but I have rarely found myself in such a familiar place as The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis! For me, it’s also been interesting to get to know a Midwestern city, which has a different culture than what you find on the east and west coasts. People are so friendly—I really enjoy visiting there, and when I leave, I leave with sadness.
How will Casa Don Alfonso be different from the fine dining you’re known for?
In Italy, we do fine dining, but we are still a family, and we never take ourselves too seriously. Casa Don Alfonso will represent that in a more casual way. Especially now, with everything we are all living through, the goal of restaurants should be to let people relax—to be a place of lightness and happiness. People are tired, and we want to go to restaurants to enjoy the experience, not to be scared of the waiter or maître d’! We started working on this a long time before COVID-19, but with a little bit of courage, I think this could actually be the right moment for this type of project. When people are ready to enjoy again, we will be ready for them.
Italian cuisine is obviously so popular in the US, and has deep roots here. How do you see Casa Don Alfonso fitting in to that landscape?
There is, of course, a huge Italian community in the US, and my own family is part of that, as most of my mother’s family lives between New York and New Jersey. I feel that the connection between the two countries is one of the strongest in the world, and Italian cuisine is a big part of that—the appreciation of Italian cuisine in the US is a historic one. It brings together generations of families that are so strongly attached to their traditions, sometimes even more so than those of us in Italy. I have memories of being at my aunt’s house in New Jersey and spending 48-hours eating authentic Neapolitan cuisine! With its focus on authentic family dishes, Casa Don Alfonso will fit into that celebration of tradition.
Tell us how you developed the menu?
We have been working on this project for about one-and-a-half years, and during that time have been doing a deep dive into Neapolitan culture to develop our recipes. Because the sea is a protagonist in Naples and the Campagna region, we are a mix of different cultures and have had culinary influences from places like the Middle East and Far East, seen through ingredients like pepperoncini and olive oil. At Casa Don Alfonso we will eat things that draw from that history.
We will also celebrate a world that doesn’t exist much anymore, through the real recipes of grandmothers, done in the traditional—but also a simple and healthy—way. The recipes of many of the region’s well-known dishes have changed over the years, but we will present the 100-percent original versions. These are the kinds of dishes I would eat when I went to my grandmother’s for Sunday lunch.
What are some examples of that?
We have a lasagna on the menu, which is a dish everyone knows, but this will be the original version of a Neapolitan lasagna. In this interpretation, there is no Bolognese, no Bechamel sauce, no chopped meat. Instead, we use big pieces of meat that we cook slowly with red wine, carrots, celery and bay leaves, for about five hours, then softly slice and add to the lasagna with ricotta. We also use hard boiled eggs—which is the sign that this is coming from a real Neapolitan grandmother!
We will also have dishes like Acqua Pazza fish, Campagna-style macaroni gratin, pizzas with an organic sourdough base, and fritto misto done the way you would find on the streets of Naples. My father opened Don Alfonso 1890 in 1973, and I can say that the Casa Don Alfonso menu reflects the exact culinary concept of that original restaurant’s first 15 years, with a focus on all the simple things that are a part of our tradition.
Will you be bringing ingredients over from Italy, or sourcing them locally?
The main, key ingredients will be shipped from Italy, from a selected a group of small makers. We’ll be using the same dried spaghetti—made by a small producer—as we do at Don Alfonso, and the same tomato sauce and extra virgin olive oil. For other products, including some fresh ones, we’ve identified some great distributors, but we also want to be respectful of local producers—so If we find a special apple from Missouri, maybe we’ll use it in a desert pizza, mixed with cinnamon. It will be a menu that respects the local seasonality. Many of the wines will come from Italy, of course, and we just got the okay to import the limoncello we make using lemons from our farm—so that will be another taste of Sant’Agata in St. Louis.