In the sleepy village of Sant Agata, perched on a promontory between the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno, lies the family-run Don Alfonso 1890, a restaurant with eight rooms attached. Although the village is a few miles from the coast, from our bedroom balcony we had a good view over the Gulf of Naples.
The kitchen is headed by Alfonso Iaccarino and his son Ernesto, with a staff of 20 chefs serving up to 50 diners at one time, with Livia Iaccorino running the front of house. This is a fifth generation family business, originally a simple family hotel, with the restaurant in its current form having been started in 1982. The emphasis is on the local cuisine and produce of the area, and the family has worked extensively with artisan suppliers over many years in order to gain access to the best local produce. Much of the produce is supplied from a farm, Le Perraciole, a few miles away on the coast near Positano opposite Capri, which the family established in 1986. When planning a trip here, bear in mind that the restaurant closes in the winter, usually from November to mid-March.
Alfonso trained with Alain Ducasse in Monaco and other kitchens around Europe before returning here to the family business to head up the kitchen. After three years in operation the restaurant gained its first Michelin star in 1985. In 1990 a second star followed, and the ultimate third star was bestowed in 1997, which was lost in 2002; the restaurant has retained two Michelin stars from then until the time of this review.
The wine cellar is interesting in itself, and not just because of its 25,000 bottle collection. The cellar is housed underground in a series of chambers that at their oldest date back to the 15th century. A stone staircase descends down and yet further down in a series of flights, with wines at each level, until you finally reach an old well, which is now used for ageing cheese, 35 metres underground. Schiopetto Pinot Grigio Collio 2009 was €40 compared to a shop price of €18, Franz Haas Pinot Nero Alto Adige Schweizer 2008 was priced at €70 for a wine you can purchase for €28 retail, up to grander choices like Penfold Yattarna 1999 at €200 compared to a retail price of €75. We drank the lovely Jermann Dreams 2001 at €85, just twice its retail price of €43, and showing real character with its bottle age.
The dining room is light and airy, with a white painted wooden floor and pink walls. The kitchen pass is visible from the dining room, and from some tables you can see the chefs at work in the kitchen. On the table were good bread sticks and flat bread. To begin there was a nibble of a couple of deep-fried mussels with a shot glass of cactus juice; the mussels were good and the cactus juice was quite refreshing (7/10).
The bread was made from scratch and the white, brown and potato bread rolls were all very capable (7/10). However nothing prepared me for the tomato foccacia, which was airily light, accurately salted and generously topped with an utterly stunning sauce of tomatoes. It turns that these tomatoes are grown on the restaurant's own farm; the tomatoes are picked daily in the season (this was towards the end of the tomato season) and brought to the restaurant each day in order to ensure perfect freshness. I have never tasted tomatoes with this depth of flavour, nor better foccacia (10/10), and I guzzled far too much of it. You could have left me with a large plate of this bread and a glass of wine and I would have been very happy indeed, but it did seem a shame to stop there. We opted for the traditional tasting menu, at €140, but there was a further tasting menu, as well as a la carte choices available.
The first course proper was in fact the best dish of the meal. Lobster tempura consisted of three generous pieces of very fresh, perfectly cooked lobster inside a light, crisp tempura batter. This was served with a lemon, orange and honey sauce on the side, and streaks of dark sweet and sour sauce, with a julienne of autumn vegetables. Lobster is a tricky thing to get right. Many lobsters served in restaurants have spent time in holding tanks and lose condition and flavour, and a remarkable number of professional kitchens overcook lobster. This by contrast, had superb flavour and was timed to perfection. It is hard to imagine how this dish could be improved upon (10/10).
The next course had several elements. Mozzarella cheese was tied up with strands of basil, grilled pumpkin was dressed with a vinaigrette, there was a little local salami, a fried dough ball with ricotta, and a rice ball with peas, mozzarella and, interestingly, a little chocolate. This dish was not in the league of the previous course, but the quality of the produce was high (8/10). Next was ravioli with Caciotta (local farmhouse cheese) with fresh oregano and a tomato sauce, with Mozzarella cream and a little basil sauce at the side. The pasta was made from scratch and was very light, and the dish benefitted from the same stunning tomatoes (9/10).
The main course did not quite live up to this. Reef fish was poached in tomato sauce, served with mussels and clams, giving it a bouillabaisse flavour. This was perfectly enjoyable, but the fish itself, though correctly cooked, did not have a particularly exciting flavour (6/10). Local cheeses were served with excellent honey from bee hives kept on the family farm, and almonds, the cheeses themselves in good condition. This was followed by a pre-dessert of iced fig mousse, which while it had good fig flavor did not have enough sugar, so lacked proper balance (5/10).
We tried two desserts. A large Amalfi lemon was hollowed out, and inside was served a creme patissiere flavoured with lemon, on top of which was creme Chantilly made with yoghurt. A lemon profiterole was dipped into the cream, and on the side was caramelized lemon and a lemon beignet. For me the dish actually needed, ironically, slightly more lemon acidity, as the cream was a little too rich. Moreover the lemon beignet was disappointing, rather soggy and tasting slightly of oil, which was particularly strange given the superb tempura produced earlier (6/10 at best overall). Much better was an interesting take on rum baba, in this case the baba served, not with creme Chantilly, but with a zabaglione made with champagne instead of the traditional Marsala, resulting in a lighter accompaniment. I thought this worked very well, and the baba was light and moist (8/10). Coffee was excellent, served with a range of petit fours, including carnoli and chocolates. Service was charming, genuine and attentive, the staff clearly passionate about the food here. Overall this was a most enjoyable experience, with lovely local produce. Although the meal had some inconsistencies, the best dishes were genuinely exciting.
On this stay here we tried some other dishes as well as those at our initial dinner. One example was risotto with game ragout had carefully cooked carnaroli rice cooked with chicken stock, the game ragout in this case flavoured with truffles (8/10). Another was a simple but very well executed dish of spaghetti with prawns, a dish hard to criticise, with excellent quality prawns (8/10). Service at our meals here was of a very high standard. Staff were not only very capable but seemed genuinely passionate about the food being served, and we felt extremely welcome here.