It was one of those emails when you find yourself stumbling for the “reply” key. I couldn’t seem to hit it fast enough when I read it.
“The Iaccarino family would like to invite you to their home to help create an interesting and stimulating conversation on themes related to food, wine, and hospitality.”
I clicked a link within the email that took me to the site of Don Alfonso 1890. My jaw dropped, I may have even lost a cup of coffee from my hand, I can’t exactly remember. What I do remember was a website of a hotel in Sant’ Agata sui due Golfi between Naples and Positano and after a few clicks I realized it would be impossible for me to say no. Add to that the promise of getting to visit with Sigrid, Nicky & Oliver, Keiko, Chika and Alessandra and there was no way we’d miss it.
I woke up the other half with “Hey, we’re going to Italy in October. Jot it down.”
Don Alfonso 1890 is a hotel and restaurant owned and operated by Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino. But to simply call it a hotel or only a restaurant would be selling it short. It is a special place in a dream destination, a property filled with so much heart and spirit in every corner that it’s not quite believable. In fact I think I’m still pinching myself.
We spent a few days in Rome with our dear friend Keiko and took the train to Naples where we met up with the blogger crew. From there we took the 90 minute drive up small curvy roads and through small towns that were all postcard-perfect. Once we made it to Sant’ Agata sui due Golfi we turned into the Don Alfonso 1890 where it took me a few minutes to pick myself up off of the ground.
Don Alfonso 1890 is a hotel and restaurant that was started by Alfonso Costanzo Iaccarino in 1890. It is still family owned and operated by his grandson Alfonso and wife Livia with their two sons, Mario and Ernesto. With a family background in hotels and hospitality it was a natural family business to keep but over the years Alfonso and Livia have made changes. They’ve added a cooking school in a separate kitchen and created state-of-the-art facilities as well as a luxury hotel. Once there I found it hard to leave.
Sant’ Agata sui due Golfi is located high in the hills that overlook the Sorrentine peninsula. The peninsula is located between the Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, and if visions of gorgeous swatches of Mediterranean colors and scents of the ocean and lemon trees pop into your brain as you read this then you certainly can imagine the beauty.
The hotel covers a significant portion of property, opening up into a courtyard that is centered between the cooking school, pool, hotel/restaurant and guest house. Olive trees, herb gardens, fragrant flowers and beautiful shrubbery were almost enough to keep us out of our room. But I said almost.
Ah, the room. That room. The hotel’s seven rooms are named after native herbs and happily we were nestled in the Lavanda suite. Calming shades of purple and lavender met energetic fuschias and persimmons and proved what I have known to be true my entire life: Italians have a way with color like no other. If you don’t believe me just ask that da Vinci guy or any member of the Missoni family.
The restaurant and rooms all feature elements from local artisans. There were beautiful chandeliers, colorful tiles and tableware all from the area. This is very important to Livia Iaccarino––she celebrates the art and bounty of her environment with such gusto that it’s difficult not to be swept up in her passion.
But it’s not solely the views or the dining room that make Don Alfonso 1890 so magnificent. It’s the food and all its history and passion and the fact that most of it is grown right up the road. More about that in a few.
We spent three days with the Iaccarinos, getting to know their philosophies on food, life and hospitality. There is something so powerful to me about being immerged in someone’s world with such distinct views and experiences. In a way it lets me get out of my own space and see through their eyes. The Don Alfonso world is so rooted in their past but with a curiosity, interest and embrace of the future, both simultaneously old world and new. The fact that they invited a group of food bloggers to spend the weekend with them proves this point. Spend a few minutes with them and you also learn one family mantra rather quickly: quality. There’s not a moment when this guiding principle disappears and you realize that quality needn’t be an unattainable concept. Do the absolute best you can with the ideal ingredients at all times.
Meals were really out of this world and it’s moments like this when I wish I was a writer. Lunches consisted of tasting menus, dinners were filled with several courses and a very special wine list featuring selections from the area. It was a mindblowing combination of extremely high end dining featuring local foods like fish, olive oil, mozzarellas (and yes, more on that experience later, too!), tomatoes, lemons, herbs, eggplant, eggs and much more.
We were encouraged to spend time in the kitchen as no area was off limits. This wasn’t an exception just for us, either. The entire family is proud of what they do and encourage everyone to understand the effort they’ve gone through to present once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I certainly wouldn’t mind cooking in that kitchen!
With a storm passing over Italy we took advantage of inclement weather by spending Saturday in the cooking school. We donned our Don Alfonso whites and spent the day discussing ingredients, cooking methods and learning how to prepare a few of the restaurant’s favorite dishes. It’s very interesting to note that the kitchen has shifted away butter and animal fats and uses almost exclusively olive oil and tapioca to thicken sauces. It’s another example of these two worlds, old and new, coming together at Don Alfonso.
We learned how to make their Vesuvius, a pasta dish of rigatoni filled with small meatballs, “fior di latte” and basil on a light San Marzano tomato cream. It was really a fun dish made to resemble Mt Vesuvius, complete with the eruption of lava. I think the group let Adam join the demonstration on this one because it did require some styling.
Lunch was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. The hotel brought in a pizza maker from Naples who’s made pizza for 40 years. He created perfect pizzas in the outdoor oven one at a time, each one of us taking piping hot pizzas consisting of nothing more than wood fired dough, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Even the oven used olive and lemon branches for fire. I will forever understand what the best pizza in the world is all about. The flavors were unique and simple with a texture between chewy and crisp. At that moment in time I needed nothing else. Oh, a beer perhaps.
And now a note about tomatoes. Grown in the volcanic soil in Mount Vesuvius’ backyard, these bright red beauties landed on my tongue and went straight to my heart. Sweet but not too sugary, very earthy and minerally, with a firm texture that maintained its pointy shape without being too toothy. If there is only one thing I will remember from my trip it’s that a perfect tomato transcends the fruit & vegetable category and chopped tomatoes on top of toast is a perfect breakfast. Ok, so that’s two things.
Back in the early 1990s Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino purchased an area of land on the peninsula at the edge of the coast and began a garden. Le Peracciole supplies their restaurant with organic produce and exemplifies the farm-to-table concept, something they’ve been doing for years. Hilly and wild, this terraced land is covered in olive trees which are harvested annually for what is perhaps the best olive oil I have ever tasted in my life. Eggplant, artichokes, sorb apples, figs, herbs, tomatoes, table grapes, and lemon trees are scattered throughout the farm, and the chickens that supply Don Alfonso with eggs live right next to Josefina and Sabatino, the Iaccarinos’ goat and extremely playful cow. We closed the weekend with one last amazing dinner after spending the afternoon on the farm.
What makes this organic garden so scenic isn’t just the small paths carved into the hillside or the bright yellow dots of Amalfi lemons but the island of Capri, resting right off the coast. Now who wouldn’t want to garden here? Pure heaven.
Endless gratitude and appreciation to Alfonso, Livia and Ernesto Iaccarino of Don Alfonso 1890 for their hospitality and such splendid care. Also thanks to Fabio Fassone, Cristiano Pellillo and Andrea Vaccaro for everything. And Delta Airlines, yea, you deserve a shout out for taking such good care of us. So there.
Coming up: A tour of the only organic buffalo milk mozzarella producer in Italy. And if you must know now, yes, it was better than anything else I’ve ever had in my entire life. How’s that for superlatives?