Don Alfonso 1890: Luxury Dining With A View
Mounted atop the 38th floor of the Westin Harbour Castle, Don Alfonso offers a lofty new location, projecting stunning views of the city skyline and Toronto’s harbour.
Named the No.1 Best Italian Restaurant in the World, outside of Italy, by 50 Top Italy, Don Alfonso 1890 is bringing Italy to you. Headed by two Michelin Star chefs, Alfonso and Ernesto Iaccarino, its newest location ignites all the senses, from its outstanding view to its fine dining Mediterranean experience.
CHEF ALFONSO IACCARINO
Q: What is the major difference between the original Don Alfonso in Italy and the Toronto location?
A: Don Alfonso Toronto continues the legacy of our original location in Italy. Toronto is a vibrant metropolitan city, while Sant’Agata is a village set on a hilltop between Naples and Salerno, on the farthest point of the Amalfi Coast. The setting of the physical locations may differ, but the philosophy remains the same.
Q: What does it mean for you to win first place for the best Italian restaurant in the world outside of Italy for 2022 by 50 Top Italy?
A: I am so proud of our team in Toronto and what they have created. They embody the philosophy of Don Alfonso 1890. The restaurant has been incredibly well-received and has been recognized with several prolific national and international awards and honours, which makes news at home in Italy.
Q: Your eight-course tasting menu took home the Meal of the Year 2022 Mulino Caputo Award. What makes this tasting menu so special?
A: The cuisine of Don Alfonso 1890 was created out of love and deference to the traditions of the cuisine of the region. Every dish we serve is carefully researched and contains the purest ingredients. The tasting menu embodies this.
Q: What are the traditional elements that you keep throughout your modern Italian dishes?
A: We always hold true to our philosophy, and the traditional element we maintain throughout is the exceptional quality of the raw materials used.
Q: What does it mean to have your family working together?
A: Family is the most important, and I am honoured to have created Don Alfonso 1890 alongside my wife, Livia and, now our two sons, Ernesto and Mario, continue the legacy we have built together.
Q: What are some of your favourite Canadian ingredients to use in your Italian dishes?
A: Canada offers an abundance of unique ingredients that add to the complexity of our authentic Italian dishes, including organic Manitoba tenderloin, Quebec Muscovy duck and Nova Scotia lobster.
Q: What is your most famous dish at the Toronto location?
A: Our Vesuvio di Rigatoni is a signature Don Alfonso dish and is featured at all locations around the world, including Toronto.
Q: What makes your food stand out from the many other Italian restaurants in Toronto?
A: We do not follow trends. Don Alfonso’s cuisine is characterized by its modernity, Mediterranean flare and the exceptional quality of the raw materials used.
NICK DI DONATO
Q: The last few years have been challenging due to COVID. What are some of the things you learned about yourself as a person and as a businessman that have improved the way you do business?
A: The last few years have been the most difficult of any for so many in the hospitality industry. I think that old adage “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger” holds true here. If we could get through this, we can get through anything. As a person, experiencing such difficulty only makes me more appreciative of what I have. Many times, when not knowing if we would be able to survive the long term, I, more than ever, appreciated my family and the support they provided me. From a business perspective, I have learned that having a sound business plan is based on quality products.
Q: What can people expect when dining here?
A: When dining at Don Alfonso, guests can expect to experience the best possible quality and sophistication on a global scale. From the quality and innovation presented in the food to the unparalleled views of the city and the culmination of these presented in a uniquely and elegantly designed space, it is sensory on so many levels. Q: Will there be any other changes to the restaurant with this change of space? A: The new space provides us with a spectacular lounge and bar area, which can be enjoyed for a casual drink or appetizer.
Q: What makes this restaurant so different and special?
A: The culinary expertise of the Don Alfonso kitchen delivers a world-class experience.
Q: What does it mean for the Toronto food scene to have a restaurant of this calibre being so widely recognized?
A: Don Alfonso 1890 is helping put the Toronto culinary scene on the world map. Having been named the Best Italian Restaurant in the World [outside of Italy] by 50 Top Italy, the brand and Toronto are being recognized by Italy.
Q: What does luxury mean to you, and how is this restaurant a reflection of that?
A: The best of the best.
Q: As you are from the same town as the original Don Alfonso, what dish/flavour from the Amalfi Coast did you most want to reflect in this new venture?
A: Interestingly, the food at Don Alfonso at first appears to be nothing like the home-cooked meals from Naples that I have grown up with. The style and presentation are nothing like the food my mother would create. What resonates is the fact that the flavours, textures and ingredients are true to my roots. It’s a twist to quality Italian food presented in a contemporary way. Alfonso was one of the first Michelin chefs who promoted the organic farm-to-table approach to cooking. As a child growing up in the hillsides of Naples, I knew nothing other than farm-to-table fresh ingredients.
Q: With fall 2022 being the inaugural edition of the Michelin Guide in Toronto, are you looking forward to the prospect of this restaurant being on the list, since you have five Michelin stars between the two chefs (three for Alfonso and two for Ernesto)?
A: The highest accolade for any restaurant is to achieve Michelin Star status. We created this restaurant to deliver a Michelin-level experience, and to be fortunate to be awarded a star would solidify our goals and ambitions.
NADIA DI DONATO
Q: What do you want people to feel while in this space?
A: In addition to the visual effect 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. Embracing the natural lighting of the space allows for a play on mood. The room transforms from natural to cleverly textured lighting, creating drama and allure during your dining experience. It’s a wealth of design details keeping you always riveted.
“We Created This Restaurant To Deliver A Michelin-level Experience” — Nick Di Donato
Q: What was the inspiration for this new space?
A: It is challenging for a designer not to have entire control of a space from a lighting and layout perspective. So, rather than fighting it, I completely embraced it. The interior details and flow of the room organically mimic and reflect the lake-to-city views in the background. For instance, the simple organic pattern and slats of metal on the bar face are an extension of the natural shoreline visible in the background, and, at sunset, the backlit columns blend into the glow of the dawn sky. Handcrafted crystal light fixtures embellish the sparkle of the city lights. And the green and copper hues of the open kitchen draw inspiration from the industrial landscape in the distance.
Q: What made you decide on this location?
A: Due to the circumstances arising from COVID and the extraordinary effect it had on the hospitality industry, the Don Alfonso restaurant in Toronto was forced to transition and morph. Unpredictable closures caused a serious disruption to the operation of such a notable brand. Although the original location was special, we felt that Don Alfonso in Toronto was deserving of a fresh new location for it to really shine. What better for the city to boast than to have a Michelin-rated chef in a beautifully designed iconic location perched atop one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
Q: Can you please tell us a bit about the art in this new location? Why was contemporary artist Damien Hirst your choice? How does this art reflect the food and the space?
A: In order to create a top-tier establishment, every last detail has to appeal to the most discerning eye. I’ve always incorporated fine art pieces from globally recognized artists — the art pieces add an understated theatricality to the dining experience.
The story behind the artwork: the original Don Alfonso restaurant was designed around a signature crane and butterfly sculpture by renowned artist Philippe Pasqua. The crane, in combination with its beautiful butterflies, depicts “the end” transforming into a “new beginning.” To continue the prevalent theme of the transformation of a butterfly, and, in essence, the restaurant, Damien Hirst’s latest work, The Empresses series, felt like a perfect installation. Magically, in this specific setting, the crystal dust butterfly motif visually transforms depending on the time of day and lighting in the room. Perfection.
Q: How does the space reflect the food style?
A: The design mirrors the food: sophisticated yet simple, like the elegant creations on uniquely modern designed plates, but with the sum of the parts adding up to so much more. A specific design detail of note — the rose motif plaster treatment on the ceiling is an extension of the fluidity of the chinaware in which the dishes are presented … in particular, the signature Don Alfonso vermicelli dish.
As a restaurant designer, I do feel it is as important to put as much thought into the design as into food. Of course, the most significant part of providing the experience is ensuring people feel your intended design goal. Creating a striking atmosphere is always the icing on the cake. Somehow it just makes the food taste even better.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the open-concept kitchen and what the reasoning behind this was? What does this bring to the experience of dining there?
A: The design of the open kitchen is just as important as the rest of the design throughout the restaurant, with details such as handcrafted copper ceilings, mosaic glass wall tiles and white marble counters. The open kitchen at Don Alfonso is a kitchen on view and better still, a kitchen with a view. Chefs get to enjoy the airiness of floor-to-ceiling windows while creating culinary art. Customers can satisfy their curiosity about our ingredients and food preparation, as well as being reassured as to our extensive levels of hygiene. By design, it is a big part of the Don Alfonso dining experience to invite customers to walk through [the kitchen] and meet the chef and his team.
Interview by Alexandra Aulicino