I dare not look down at the sheer cliffs. Eyes closed, I pray in silence as our driver barrels along the hairpin curves of the steep and narrow road driving up, up from Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast to the quiet village of Saint Agate Sui Due Golfi. Our destination: Don Alfonso 1890.
Entering the unassuming stone building, the welcome is just what I need. A glass of wine and a gorgeous comfortable room decorated in white and fuschia. Don Alfonso and his wife Olivia and son Ernesto Iaccarino are my hosts at their two star Michelin boutique hotel and restaurant. Three beautiful days of exquisite foods, a stroll through the hillside garden, a vista across the water to Capri, and style and service that is above and beyond any in my previous experience. On departing, I say to my friend, “this has been the highlight of my travel journalism career.”
Six years pass. One day, there is a simple announcement on social media. Nick Di Donato and Liberty Group Entertainment are partnering with the Iaccarino family and bringing Don Alfonso 1890 to Toronto. I can hardly contain my excitement.
Designer Nadia Di Donato’s creative spirit soars into high gear, as she re-invents the handsome space that was Rosewater. For the new restaurant, she envisions white and grey, marble and gold, unique edgy sculptures and wall décor. The one blast of color at the entrance is a huge, statement-making painting by an artist whose work also hangs in the Vatican. It’s showtime.
In the fall of 2018, Don Alfonso 1890 opened to the public. Every chair sits at a razor-sharp angle; white tablecloths are pristine; the white roses in every vase are perfection. The glass-encased wine cupboard filled with a splendid selection of precious bottles gleams invitingly. Senior Sommelier Chris Lafleur (certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers) is primed to introduce the bottles for pairing. We appreciate the dignified yet edgy ambiance that has been achieved, yet, with comfort foremost in mind. Guests are enthralled, and the one word on everyone’s lips, “beautiful!”
Check out when we indulged in After the Fire Wines at Toronto’s Ritz Carlton Hotel.
A glassed-in open kitchen stands at the heart of the restaurant. The corps de cuisine is ready. Here the pinnacle of professionalism, calmness and culinary talent is revealed. Executive Chef Saverio Macri and Chef de Cuisine Daniel Corona have spent some months in Italy, training in Don Alfonso’s kitchen. Opening night is a gala premiere. Don Alfonso and Ernesto have flown in from Italy and guests have dressed to the nines for the occasion. Expectations are high. Let the games begin!
We have checked our preconceived notions at the door, and enter with an open mind and an eager appetite. The first dish kindles our palate’s capacity to appreciate the blend of style and flavours. They say that all plates were made in Italy after the menu was devised in order to enhance the presentation and taste. Ah, Moda Italiano. There are no notes of the familiar or the clichéd, no reminders of dishes eaten elsewhere. The kitchen’s savvy shows in a smartly turned out rendition of ice creamed eel with a cap of Sturgeon Caviar that shares the plate with a swirl of rose-scented tagliatelle, mince of wild herbs and egg. Each dish is a star on the runway.
Seared Muscovy Duck Breast is enhanced with accessories of Royal Gala apples, baby spinach, and further piqued with a reduction of balsamic vinegar and anise demi-glace nuanced with pulverized cinnamon and borage. Authenticity is key. Vermicelli from Gragnano, the ancient home of artisanal pasta makers, partners with Mackerel textured with Sicilian pine nuts and caramelized onions on tuna puree sauce. The parade of spectaculars continues. A favorite is Meluzzo Nero, the organic black oyster mushroom, served with smooth puree of cauliflower, guanciale and perfumed with black truffle.
Tenderloin of Manitoba Bison is seared, wrapped in layered Swiss Chard, Mozzarella, salsa verde, San Marzano tomato, red chili reduction and a lot of love, and baked in a rustic bred crust. I like a happy ending that sparks joy: here is a footed platter of petit fours served in a cloud of dry ice. We are entranced.
Don Alfonso 1890 becomes a media darling overnight. A shower of honours rains down on the restaurant, including the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and DiRoNa – Distinguished Restaurants of North America. And then, as a natural progression, the world takes note. Awards include the Gambero Rosso “Best New Restaurant in the World” and Tres Forchette (3 forks). Inclusion in the Paris La Liste Best Restaurants of the year; the number 1 top-rated Italian Restaurant in Canada; and inclusion in the Top Ten restaurants in Canada!! No surprise that reservations at peak hours and on weekends are tight. In Toronto, where being among the first to try a new restaurant is a badge of one-upmanship, the question du jour is, “have you been to Don Alfonso 1890?
Striving for excellence has its rewards. After one year, Don Alfonso 1890 is honoured with the 50 Best Italy – 2nd best Italian Restaurant in the World. Onward and upward.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.