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If I could die and be reincarnated, I’d come back as Sabatino, the calf belonging to Alfonso Iaccarino – or “don” Alfonso – the heroic and slightly mad Michelin-starred chef from Southern Italy. Sabatino the calf is fed with seasonal fruit, wild herbs and the leftovers from the restaurant that Alfonso runs together with his son Ernesto Iaccarino, who has taken over the kitchen. Of course, Sabatino the calf will die one day... of old age. Nobody would ever think of butchering him and he loves his owners, greeting them with enthusiasm like a gigantic puppy dog.
Sabatino, together with an over-excited and quarrelsome group of chickens and hens, is the only resident of Peracciole, the family-run farm that supplies the two Michelin-starred restaurant Don Alfonso 1890, in Sant’Agata dei due Golfi, near Naples. More than the countryside, it’s a little slice of paradise and perhaps the largest “vegetable garden” so closely tied to a single restaurant: eight hectares of steep, craggy land that finishes at the sea, right in front of the island of Capri – so close that one can even count the houses. It’s a garden that’s been lovingly carved out from the wild Mediterranean fauna near the tip of the Sorrentine Penninsula. Terraced gardens, little vegetable patches, wild herbs and two thousand olive trees – a passion of Don Alfonso’s.
Thanks to the green thumb of Fortunato, who is the impeccable concierge of the Sant’Agata Relais, local variants like the “Minucciola”, are mixed with the Sicilian “Nocellara” olive trees, as well as the Tuscan “Frantoio” trees, which provides a mix that the restaurant uses for as tasting oil – an oil that Alfonso himself wanted, and an oil that has transformed a mediocre local product into a small masterpiece. And this isn’t the only miracle that don Alfonso has created. When, in 1973, he opened his restaurant along with his constant companion, his wife Livia, everyone thought he was out of his mind. He discarded all traces of cream sauces, penne with salmon and veal scallops alla cacciatora and decided to return to “poor” cuisine, in the true Mediterranean tradition.
Nowadays, using locally produced ingredients is practically taken for granted, but forty years ago it was considered something that only farmers would do. And this was precisely Alfonso’s challenge – to take his own land into the realms of haute-cuisine, maintaining its simple elegance. To do this, it was necessary to create a direct link between his agrarian company and the kitchen. He was working according to “zero kilometre” and “organic” standards way before they were ever even talked about, especially by the restaurant industry. Of course, the fact that the Sorrentine Peninsula is such a bountiful land, with such a vast range of unique products, helped matters. Like the famous lemons – so delicate and tasty that they can be eaten even with their skins – which can be transformed into desserts with a cream base, or even with fried and caramelized rinds. One could even take an entire voyage, just following lemons and in of its forms.
But for a true voyage, even before visiting the restaurant, it’s important to take a trip to the farm and understand why each product – be it asparagus, arugula, fruit or tomatoes – tastes so purely of itself. It’s thanks to the soil, the wind and the sea that these crops have such a unique flavour, unlike any other in the world. And only after having made your way across this garden – so carefully created by Alfonso from the surrounding Mediterranean “jungle”, that one can truly understand what Iaccarino’s magic ingredient truly is. Don Alfonso’s “revolution” can be tasted in thespaghetti al pomodoro, a truly archetypical dish – both ancient and modern, simple and perfect: pasta, tomato, oil and basil. Alfonso put it on the menu when other chefs, seeking to be seen as modern, were serving caviar, cream and champagne. What they didn’t understand then, and what Iaccarino always has, is that there’s nothing quite so luxurious as simplicity.