By Rosanna Caira
Since 1890, the Don Alfonso name has carried a storied history in the Campania region of Italy. But it wasn’t until 1973 that chef Alfonso Iaccarino and his wife Livia created the genesis of what is now a two-Michelin star restaurant ensconced between the two gulfs of Sorrento and Naples amidst the breathtaking Amalfi Coast. Today, the iconic brand has six outposts around the world, including two in Italy, Macau, New Zealand, St. Louis and Toronto, which has gone through three different iterations since originally opening in Toronto in 2018.
Last week, the Liberty Entertainment Group (LEG) unveiled its newest location atop the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto, fuelling great interest from the media, eager to view the latest rendition of the internationally acclaimed restaurant and sample from its menu.
When the restaurant originally opened in 2018, marking the company’s foray into North America, it was housed on Toronto St. in the city’s financial district. But two years later, when the pandemic hit and the location was marked for a condo re-development, Nick Di Donato, president and CEO of LEG, moved the upscale restaurant to Casa Loma, where it became a pop-up restaurant, until a new location was found. Then a few months ago the iconic entrepreneur announced the best Italian restaurant outside Italy had found its new home atop the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel where panoramic views of Toronto’s lakefront add a unique dimension to the stunning restaurant.
From a design perspective, the 82-seat restaurant (an additional 16 seats are included in the bar area), is both ethereal and stunning. “In addition to the visual effects of the city and water view that greets your eyes when you enter, I wanted to create a sense of airiness and modern elegance throughout the restaurant,” says Nadia Di Donato, designer and wife of Nick Di Donato. The designer embraced the natural lighting of the space to “play on the mood allowing the room to transform from natural to cleverly textured lighting, creating drama and allure during the duration of the dining experience.” A touch of whimsy is achieved through hand-crafted crystal lights, and fine art pieces from globally recognized artists such as Damien Hirst, Randy Cooper and Mr. Brainwash. And, the rose motif plaster treatment on the ceiling is an extension of “the fluidity of the chinaware in which the dishes are presented,” says Nadia Di Donato.
For chef Iaccarino, owner of the company’s Italian restaurant and his wife Livia who travelled from Italy to be part of the media event, the opening represents yet another opportunity to celebrate fresh, high-quality, farm-to-table Italian cuisine.
Asked how the recent iteration compares to the previous two, the Michelin-starred chef says, “The character of this one is better. Initially we did well, and then at Casa Loma it was better, but this location is the definitive one ― showing what we can do, even if we always aspire to do better,” says Iaccarino.
While the goal of the acclaimed chef is to replicate his Italian restaurant’s menu as much as possible, he also aims to take advantage of unique local ingredients. “In Canada we have bison, in Italy we have beef. In Italy we have Ricciola, here we have wild salmon. It’s more or less the same style, with some minor changes ― primarily in the ingredients. The secret is to always find better and present them in a modern style. The majority of our products are organic; we use a lot of extra virgin olive oil; we don’t use butter, and the style is all about fresh.”
The focus on fresh is a philosophy that permeates the restaurant at every turn. These days, Iaccarino has relinquished his cooking duties to son Ernesto who now helms the kitchen, while the elder chef tends to his nearby seven-hectare farm called La Perricciole where he cultivates the fruits, vegetables and even the olives used for the olive oil at his restaurant. His wife Livia and other son Mario run the front of the house making the enterprise truly a family business.
When asked if it’s challenging to find the same quality ingredients in North America given the short growing season, Iaccarino says, “it’s all about experience. You have to know the right products that are available here. The most important thing is the customer has to be happy. This is the cuisine of the future,” pointing to consumers’ desire to eat less meat and healthier ingredients. “It’s a study of experience. Thank God, the consumer is happy and we’ve had a lot of success,” he says.
While higher prices have become common post pandemic, Iaccarino says as a high-end restaurant, “We’ve remained firm with prices for now, and we’re hoping to remain with our feet on the ground.”
The new Canadian outpost showcases Italian chef Daniele Corona, who is at the helm of the open kitchen, where he oversees a young, diverse and talented group of cooks, who offer both an à la carte menu and a tasting menu. Dishes include such favourites as I Vermicelli allo Sgombro, Il Vesuvio di Rigatoni, organic Manitoba Tenderloin wrapped in layered Swiss Chard and Nova Scotia lobster. Iaccarino says it’s a 50-50 split between the two menu options. “If guests choose à la carte the first time, they’ll opt for the tasting menu next time,” he says.
While Iaccarino has helmed Don Alfonso 1890 for more than four decades, he’s happy to now watch his sons carry on the legacy. “In the summer months, Ernesto doesn’t ever move from Sant’Agata,” laughs the elder Iaccarino, “but in the winter, he travels to our other restaurants, including Toronto.”
While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on restaurants around the world, the humble chef says fortunately the restaurant quickly rebounded. “People want to go out; they want to be around other people – to live. God, there’s a boom going on right now in Italy,” states the chef ― “both in Amalfi and throughout Italy.” Despite the staff shortages which are pervasive in Italy as well, he’s confident the situation will improve in short order. For now, the chef and the rest of the Don Alfonso team are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Michelin Guide in Toronto in September. “I hope they [the judges] understand our success and the style of this restaurant,” says Iaccarino, “but if they don’t recognize us, the world will end. I may have to find another job,” he jokes.