Thursday, May 21, 2015

Don Alfonso 1890 - Spring in Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi (Na)

It was early that Saturday afternoon.  A half an hour or so before lunch time, and I was enjoying the silence in  the garden which separated the back entrance to the kitchen and Don Alfonso 1890's Scuola di Cucina.  The colorful pillows on the bamboo couch were the perfect benvenuto after a relaxing drive to the small town of Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi located about 20 minutes from the busy tourist haven  of Sorrento.  After a glass of acqua gassata fredda but not too much - after a welcome back/good to see you/how have you been  conversation with Maitre de Maison Mario Iaccarino, a chat with his mother   la Signora Livia Iaccarino,  Chef Ernesto Iaccarino came over to greet me.  It was my first visit of the season, my fifth season on the comfy couch and we had some catching up to do.
The calendar read early May, but the temperature that afternoon felt more like early summer . Greatly appreciated for the restaurant which was already enjoying a boom in business after opening for the 2015 season just a few weeks earlier.  They were packed the previous evening - Iaccarino shared.  And tonight? I wondered.  Saturday night was booked as well.  I was told.  But lunchtime... Molto piu tranquillo - much more relaxing.  Just a few guests. continued Iaccarino.  And speaking of lunchtime, it was time to get started.  That is when the chef asked me a question.  Where did I want to sit?
My favorite spot next to the window?  The table where I was first introduced to the cucina by Iaccarino 4 seasons earlier?  The table with a perfect view of the garden and kitchen?
hmmmm, maybe...
Or how about in the the chef's table. A spot right next to the pass where you can see all the action? I did enjoy myself there on a previous visit.
Or how about?....I thought to myself, while Iaccarino left me for a moment.  How about here?- the small dining room off the dining room.  Where the sun shone brightly through the windows that took up nearly 3/4 of the wall space.  A dining room bathed in luce,  where the bright colors, the pinks, the greens, the white white whites invited me to have a seat angle of Don Alfonso that I was unfamiliar with.  An angle nestled away in the corner, serving as my little private dining room for the day. Sure, I'd be alone...but what better way to concentrate on every little detail that makes Don Alfonso one of the most famous restaurants in the world.

I was handed the menu. I had been looking it over  menu for quite sometime when Mario Iaccarino came over. He had surely seen  my difficulty in deciding what to choose - should I go with the classics? - stick with familiar favorites? - try something new? 
Decidiamo insieme? he asked smiling.
Please, I answered. So over the next several minutes Mario and I went through the menu, course by course. He shared with me details such as what was in the dish, where the products were from, how they were prepared, what flavors would stand out, would they be strong, delicate...
In the end we decided.
Grazie for that personal touch.  That attention to detail.
I decided to take a look around...explore with different eyes.  I noticed everything.  The freshly cut flowers - that where bright and vibrant in color, but light in aroma.  To complement, not overpower. The theme continued in the fish bowl, where I introduced myself to another single diner...a small blue fish enjoying his spot in the sunlight among the colorful flowers that decorated his fishbowl.

Attention to detail.

When I returned to my table, I discovered a glass of Ca del Bosco and a vase of chips.  Two chips to be exact.  One made with tumeric, the other with black squid ink.

 Casually followed by the first of two benvenutos.  The first - an artichoke heart topped with a creamy pea sauce and mozzarella cheese.

Next up - a baby squid stuffed with provolone del monaco cheese with a consomme' of spring vegetables from the family's farm in nearby Punta Campanella.

A consomme' that was poured in front of me at my table by a knowledgeable server who as he poured the delicate liquid, explained the dish with the same delicatezza

Attention to detail.

Earlier, with Mario I had chosen a couple of appetizers...something old/something new.  We began with something new. An appetizer light and easy - one that once again highlighted the freshness of the the season with the exceptional quality of the products cultivated on the family's farm.  Fennel, zucchini, beets, onions, artichokes to name a few...paired with an eye-popping horseradish ice cream.

Attention to detail.
Something old -ish.  A dish that was introduced back in 2011.  A favorite -  lobster 'zeppole' appetizer with sweet and sour and citrus sauces for dipping/devouring.  And I did.  Noticing the the crispy coating, the crispy curly vegetables, the sweet/sour sauce paired with the citrus to give just the right contrast.

Attention to detail.

Back to something new-well- a second look at another favorite.  Duck breast with  cinnamon and borage,  apple compote and balsamic vinegar.  How could one not notice the artwork  that the kitchen staff placed on the plate.  The white dish was a canvas for what seemed almost astronomical designs made with the various reductions.  I noticed.

Attention to detail.

The dishes continued.  Each with that famous Don Alfonso touch, that Don Alfonso attention to detail.
New for 2015 - Don Alfonso 1890''s carnaroli rice with notes of citrus fruits from the garden with sea urchin emulsion and scampi. when maitre Paolo Ciaramitaro  brought me this dish, it came with strict instructions from the chef. I was not to mix the rice around with the sauce and shrimp. Instead, take a little bite of each at a time. The white dish once again was a canvas- beet and squid ink.  A sprinkling of orange powder.

It was hard to stay away from the bread basket.  A bounty that had been sitting on the table for quite some time.  At one point Signora Livia came over to see how I was doing  and pointed out that one piece of bread in particular - one small loaf - was special.  I had already noticed.  A loaf of bread  made with durum wheat perfect to pair with the family's olive oil.

Two more first course assaggi found their way to my table.  The gnocco acqua e farina which I wrote about here....

The second was a pleasant surprise - one that  I discovered when I walked into the kitchen.  My eyes followed sous chef Nicola Pignatelli from a distance as he prepared this dish of cappelli pasta filled with braised chicken, onion gravy, parmigiano cheese, and black truffles.

I decided to visit the kitchen again, snoop around to see what Chef Iaccarino and his brigade was up to.  Perfect timing.  They were preparing my secondo piatto.  Snapper.  Coriandolo, he said.  Coriander.  It gives an amazing aroma and more importantly, flavor to the dish, he shared.And o prove that point, I was offered   a small sprig of this plant to taste and enjoy the aromas as well.

A secondo that cooks 7 minutes in a glass jar.  The flavors and aromas that came out of this jar of 'dentice cotto non cotto', well, you have no idea! Snapper, coriander, lemon, mandarin.

Attention to detail.

Mario Iaccarino and I had decided earlier  to end my Spring 2015 gastronomical journey here.  Well, almost...
Dessert was next...
beginning with a fresh pre-dessert to clean the palate.  A lemon sorbet (with lemons from guess where) strawberries and verbena.

Attention to detail.

The small pastry tray arrived, and just as I was about to take a closer look, a mint syrup was poured over a tray of dry ice creating an incredible minty aromatic cloud.  On the tray - a mini Sicilian cannoli, a morbidezza  with yogurt and banana on crunchy almonds, chocolate and  turmeric , strawberry, and a strawberry macaroon. A walnut semifreddo. 

Attention to detail.

 Last but not least, a dish close to my heart.  One that arrived a few minutes after pastry chef Tommaso Foglia called out to me from the kitchen window while I was walking along the garden stretching my legs.
Dessert's ready! he said.
I hope it's chocolate, I said smiling.
A smile was his answer.
And there, in my private dining little corner, I was presented with a geometricla chocolate extravaganza.  Chocolate mousse in the shape of a pyramid, a chocolate triangle, a cube of chocolate with an arugula garden.  A chocolate souffle in a shortcrust pastry.

Lunch over. And my afternoon ended almost as it began.  In the garden.  On that comfy couch. With Chef Iaccarino. Catching up.

Attention to detail.

Don Alfonso Spring 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Back to Beluga Skybar - An Aperitivo Speciale, Romeo Hotel (Na)

Back to Beluga Skybar for aperitivo hour.  Back for something a little extra ordinary.  Something different from the usual cocktail/glass of wine/peanuts and and olives.
In an earlier post  I spoke about an amazing club sandwich that I enjoyed/devoured.  But man does not live on club sandwiches alone, so what does one do when craving an amazing array of appetizers prepared by Michelin star Chef Salvatore Bianco before the hotel's restaurant - Il Comandante opens?  Simple.  Visit Beluga.
I found out that at Beluga, guests can order something diversa, different from the usual snack menu and discover amazing appetizers with that special view.

A view that you may forget for a short while when a tray like this one arrives.  Full of color, full of aperitivo speciale...

I started here- with a crunchy rice cake made with black squid ink. The chef added his puttanesca sauce - a twist on the classic tomato sauce with olives, capers.  Droplets of anchovy butter casually placed around this croccante di riso not only add to this appetizer visually, but  give it  a burst of flavor as well.

Also on the well polished wooden tray was this...

A small tart made with parmigiano cheese, a mortadella mousse, and a gelatin made with balsamic vinegar.

Crunchy on the outside...

Sausage and friarielli greens on the inside.  

From crunchy to smooth...a creamy butter... pair with this freshly baked cornetto topped with sesame seeds.

And this?  The presentation makes you stop to admire it for a short while.  The chef explained that it was reminiscent of the stereotypical laundry lines that Naples is famous for.  Clotheslines full of laundry drying in the Neapolitan sun.

This appetizer, however, was a soft pliable taco made with beet.  Inside?  Soft provolone del monoco cheese.

To the left, what seemed to be a  shiny stone that you would find on the beach.

Instead, the chefs version of cod with potatoes.  On the outside, soft, morbido...inside savory.

I continued my clockwise tour with this spongy creation...Basically a whisper of sage...

I finished up my aperitivo speciale with this little treat with a potato crocche' filled with blue buffalo milk cheese.

Beluga Skybar & Restaurant
Breakfast: from Monday to Friday from 7:00 am to 10:30 am.
Saturday and Sunday from 7:00 am to 11:00 am.
Bar & Lunch: from 12:30 pm to 02:30 pm
Bar & Snack: from 02:30 pm to 08:00 pm

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Black is the New Black - Linguine al Nero di Seppia, Chef Domenico De Simone, Il Bikini (Na)

The sun shone brightly on the terrace of Ristorante Bikini that day, requiring me to put on a pair of sunglasses during lunch.  The bellissimo terrace overlooking the beach with a spectacular view of the sea and Mt Vesuvius in the distance. But even with those shades,  it was  hard not to notice the sharp contrasts in colors when this plate arrived at my table. A white plate of black.  Or to be more specific, a plate of linguine pasta cooked to the perfect point of al dente, with a flavorful squid ink sauce.  Squid ink is nothing new, but this plate was particularly flavorful thanks to Chef Domenico De Simone's experienced hand.

He cooks the squid whole, at a very low temperature, after having marinated it first with Mediterranean herbs like the ones located in their nearby garden.  So, along with the squid ink, there are savory slices of squid that seem to be snuggling  among the pasta - waiting to be discovered in every forkful.

Yes, black is the new black.
And it is beautiful.