To truly understand the complexity of Italian cuisine, you would need to grasp all its colors, flavors, textures and aromas. If you add to that around 20 regional variations and influences, you would need a decade to fully appreciate its richness. Luckily, Casa Don Alfonso, at the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macau is a perfect place to start, due to its commitment and passion for authentic Italian food.
Even those who aren’t gastronomically inclined are familiar with the Don Alfonso empire. The culinary brand dominates in regions of Sant’Agata, Amalfi Coast, Italy; Levello, Basilicata, Italy; Helena Bay, New Zealand; Macau, China, and Toronto, Canada. The Iaccarino family’s legacy has flourished since the nineteenth century captivating cities in different continents with the wonders of the South of Italy on an elegant fine dining plate. This family-friendly restaurant embodies honest cuisine that upholds a standard of hospitality that has been handed down from one generation to the next.
What makes Casa Don Alfonso interesting for gourmands in Macau, Hong Kong, and the region? Maybe, it’s because unlike stuffy Italian dining experiences, the menu of delicious Mediterranean dishes is crafted with heart and a focus on wellbeing. While the restaurant is a revamp of southern Italian fine-dining restaurant Don Alfonso 1890, which opened at the Grand Lisboa Hotel in 2007, Casa Don Alfonso impresses with a hit parade of deliciously humble dishes. Making you feel the real essence of home by conjuring words such as artisanship, sustainability, and authenticity are all at the heart of the Italian cooking principles at this dining destination.
The Farm-To-Table Concept
Tucked away in the Sorrentina Peninsula is a hidden gem of seventeen acres of lush organic gardens and orchards owned by the Iaccarino family. It’s easy to surmise that the raw ingredients for the highly-acclaimed Don Alfonso 1890 restaurant originate from this piece of paradise on earth. The family farm aptly named Le Peracciole after a local variety of pear is where the Don Alfonso family has paid homage to sustainably sourced ingredients by producing their own food. While the farm-to-table concept has often been perceived as a sneaky marketing tactic, Don Alfonso has been oblivious to the growing movement having had this ethos of their brand for almost three decades. By bringing this concept to the forefront of Macau’s culinary scene, they emphasize their commitment to environmental sustainability hopefully making an impact in the city’s dining landscape.
Chef Ernesto Iaccarino–son of the prominent Chef Alfonso–recently visited Casa Don Alfonso at the Grand Lisboa Hotel, enabling guests to experience the signature dishes of Sant’Agata. The talented Chef Ernesto who often visits the city brought with him the very best produce of Le Peracciole to Macau. Honoring the integrity of nature, the dishes were presented with ingredients from a farm filled with lemon groves and olive trees. The family takes pride in growing their own tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, lettuce, onions, potatoes, figs, peaches, cherries, apricots, grapes and more, entirely without the use of chemicals. A momentous visit, we sat down with him to discover their little secrets behind the kitchen. From the use of their own olive oil to family values, it’s apparent how the Iaccarino family has stayed true to the ingredient-focused culinary style.
Secrets of their success
Reminiscing the restaurant’s humble beginnings in Italy, it wasn’t too long ago when Don Alfonso 1890 began as a pizza restaurant in 1973. It started that way decades ago and still somehow echoes the same concept here in Macau, China. Indeed, Chef Alfonso Iaccarino who is the founder of Don Alfonso 1890 was among the few men to focus on the value of top ingredients. However, Chef Ernesto Iaccarino tells us with complete honesty, “It’s a complex answer to the secret of success. The Michelin Guide has its standard. And of course, we are much more focused on the guests, the people and on the philosophy. So it’s really not just about Michelin stars but also about the fact that Don Alfonso 1890 is recognized in the world as one of the best Italian restaurants”.
Having been ranked number one restaurant in Italy by TripAdvisor for two years consecutively and obtaining two-Michelin stars amongst its multiple accolades, the talented chef mulls over what makes people travel from the other side of the world and sample their cuisine. He suggests that the rapid change in the traditional form of media and now with the internet allows people to express themselves more freely. He explains, “The truth is in the food and the truth of a family that has been in this business since the 1890s. We are the fifth generation in hotels and the second generation at the highest level of food quality. We have spent two lives, my father’s life, and mine to try to put Mediterranean food on the global scene”.
Elevating the Mediterranean diet on to the culinary map
Don Alfonso 1890 has been revered as unique because of a Mediterranean-diet oriented menu. Chef Ernesto fondly remembers, “It was a big deal for us to start our own philosophy to make a design presentation that’s appropriate and to create a dish the level of an international top chef. The Michelin stars eventually arrived but that wasn’t our focus. We focused on expressing the identity of our cuisine. And, our identity of cooking the cuisine of the Mediterranean that carries 3,000 years of heritage. We want to express the southern Italy culinary culture in our cuisine, skipping the northern European influence and focusing on the Mediterranean diet”.
When the restaurant opened in 1973, the brand decided not to follow the northern European tradition but follow the South of Italy’s culinary heritage. At the same time, an American scientist named Ancel Keys was advocating the health value of a Mediterranean-style diet. He was one of the early champions of the concept linking science with food. The Don Alfonso brand was the proponent of the Mediterranean diet placing it on the map as a fine dining category. And in 2010, UNESCO listed the Mediterranean diet as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Truth About Sustainability
When asked about sustainability Chef Ernesto says, “I often talk about the avant-garde. For me, avant-garde is a philosophy of making food that you will eat in 20 to 30 years’ time. I think the way we eat is changing radically. We want to be in shape, to live longer, to have a better life and be very fit”. The motivated culinary artist emphasizes that the Mediterranean diet is naturally a much more sustainable way of eating for the planet as vegetables, fruits, and legumes are in its foundation. Proving his point, he explains that Barilla, the biggest pasta producer in Italy has been using Canadian durum wheat because Canada became the biggest producer of durum wheat in the world. Using chemistry, they’ve adapted a race of durum wheat with much more gluten. Consequently, gluten allergy is becoming like the flu. So many people are gluten sensitive now because the genetic makeup of wheat has been changed. But recently, the small producers in the South of Italy started to produce pasta only with Italian durum wheat and Barilla eventually decided to give up on Canada and started buying only Italian durum wheat. “To believe in a more natural way of food production is something we should push for more”, the chef exclaims.
The menu following the seasons
“It’s critical to always follow the season because we have a farm,” says Chef Ernesto. “The change of seasons means a change in the ingredients. The four seasons are clearly manifested on the menu of any Don Alfonso restaurant. In fall, there are cauliflower, black truffle, porcini mushroom, broccoli, and lobster. Then in the summer, they have peaches, tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplants. The menu at Casa Don Alonso is a manifesto of the Mediterranean diet, following the season and nature. Nature is so perfect; it gives you all you need at any moment of the season. It’s very important to produce food that’s ethical. Food affects our lives in such a crucial way and I believe we need a special organization to help to control the quality and origin of production.”
Chef Ernesto Iaccarino: Past, Present, and Future of Food
When asked about the real essence of authentic Italian cuisine, Chef Ernesto says, “Italian cuisine is all about simplicity but sometimes simplicity is even more complex because to make a good pasta or a good pizza, it’s a matter of thousands of little details. It’s about cooking something that you will remember forever. At the end of it all, the result should be simple and should be very direct to your palates and your mind.”
He also states that they want to make healthy food and elaborates that they care about the quality of the supply, wanting to know the person behind the produce “From the fisherman to the producer of the mozzarella, we want to be guardians of the values of sustainability. We want to share a connection with nature. This is something we really care about. Our farm-to-table concept means a connection to nature with less animal protein, and more plant protein. To support the food industry means gearing to a more sustainable planet. This means we all need to learn the correct way of eating.”
The Don Alfonso 1890 concept has gained international success with multiple locations in Italy, New Zealand, Toronto, and Macau. Chef Ernesto puts it simply by saying, “It’s truly all about the guests when they feel at home in the restaurant or they feel like friends even if you don’t know each other. It might be because we share the same values through food. Food is one of the most magical things that we have in the world. Sometimes in our restaurant in Italy, you’ll see diners of different nationalities. And you marvel at the fact that you don’t need to translate anything. You just cook because food is the most universal of all of the languages. It’s such a fantastic feeling!”
The True Values of Family Meals
Chef Ernesto places importance on dining at home with his family even though the spread is simple. “Most of the time I enjoy good bread with good extra virgin olive oil and perhaps some tuna. That can be very rewarding after a long day at work.
I’ve been often asked what the most important lesson I’ve learned from my father is. Normally, the son would contradict the father’s advice and do the complete opposite of what he’s been taught. It’s the reality of growing up and I am now a father myself. It’s crucial to be open-minded, to instill hard work because you cannot impose what you want all the time–it’s impossible. I am lucky to have been born in a family that treasures food and the beauty of it. Beauty is something we are all attracted to. That’s something I always want my family to live with.”