I had a tremendous reaction to my post on eating out on the Amalfi Coast – thank you to all those who took the time to read it. I did, however, leave out what was certainly the gastronomic highlight of this trip. I did this as I wanted the time and space to write a whole piece about this great experience.
On our trip around the Amalfi penninsula we happened to be staying in Sant’Agata on the night of my wife’s birthday so I thought that I would try to find a special restaurant to celebrate in. I was very pleased to find that there was such a suitable restaurant, Don Alfonso 1890, which is commonly said (by people who know about these sorts of things) to be the best restaurant in southern Italy. The fact that we were going to be in Sant’Agata on the day iself and, as we later found out, staying in a villa owned by the family who run the restaurant suggested to me that this was just meant to be. At least it would if I believed in that kind of thing. Sant’Agata sui Due Golfo is a quaint and rather quiet town up in the hills half way between Positano and Sorrento up in the hills. The area around the town is surrounded by olive and lemon groves and is well renowned for the quality of its produce; there are a lot of agriturismos in the area, which are farms that are open for people to stay on them so that they can live in amongst the food that they eat – food is big business in this part of the world!
When reading up about the restaurant I was amazed to find out that they claim to have one of the oldest wine cellars in the world. I emailed ahead when making the reservation and asked whether I would be able to take a tour of the cellar and I was delighted when they confirmed that I could. On arriving at the restaurant we were ushered in to an amazing set of rooms which in total contained over 25,000 bottles of wine! They make no apologies for largely stocking Italian wines, but they also have an incredible collection of wines from the great and the good of the wine world. There were magnums, jereboams and bigger, and there were wines dating back to the nineteenth century. Just walking along the rows I saw Gaja, Petrus, Y’Quem and many other stellar names. It was then that I rounded a corner and looked down a long corridor that slowly went deeper and deeper underground, seemingly carved into the very earth itself. This was a Phoenician tunnel that is thought to have been created in about the sixth century BC. All along the tunnel were racks with wine set in them. I walked down to the very depths of this tunnel and found the deepest parts of it which they use to age some very special (and particularly pungent) cheeses.
After all of that walking I was certainly in the mood for eating. We were placed in a beautiful room at an elegant table overlooked by an original portrait of Marie-Antoinette; who better to look over you as you plan to seriously indulge yourself? As we tend to go away for my wife’s birthday she has recently noted with some sorrow that she never receives any flowers on her birthday. Unbeknownst to her I’d arranged with the restaurant for a lovely bouquet of flowers from their own garden to be placed on the table – I think I scored some serious husband points for that one!
We decided to take their Traditional Menu, which was six courses. There was not an accompanying wine flight pre-designed for this menu but the sommelier was on hand to offer us wines by the glass at appropriate moments to match our dishes. We decided to drink only local wines during the meal as all the food was sourced locally from the restaurant’s farm so it seemed appropriate.
We started with a Deep Fried Lobster in a Sweet and Sour Sauce served with a Acidula of Citrus Fruit and a Julienne of Spring Vegetables. We were presented with two decently sized chunks of wonderful lobster tail. The batter around the lobster was light and crispy and not at all heavy, which was offset beautifully by the sweet and sour sauces. The little bed of Julienne spring vegetables were light and retained a satisfying crunch to them.
Next up was one of those dishes that I am going to remember for the rest of my life. On the menu it was intriguingly entitled “The Rediscovery of the Baked Egg, with Burrata and Black Truffle”. When the plate arrived it, of course looked like a fried egg. The egg yolk was a real yolk that had been poached, but the star was the faux egg white, which was made from Burrata, something I’d never eaten before – but will definitely be on the look-out for in the future. Burrata is a fresh cheese made from a mixture of cheese mozzarella and cream. This Burrata was from Puglia and had been made into a heavenly foam which was at once rich, creamy, light and deeply flavoured. The little shavings of Black Truffle served along with this dish added a little smattering of opulence to this already regal dish. Wow.
For the first two courses we were served a Lacryma Christi del Versuvio from Villa Dora (Campania) which was a blend of Coda di Volpe and Falanghina (for more on my wine-drinking escapades in Amalfi, see my blog for Vinspire). On the nose it had a twinge of lemons and sea-spray, which I guess was appropriate for the region. On the mouth it was fruity, but with a prevalent acidity which gave it good balance and a lovely finish. It matched both of the courses very well, which was impressive given how different they were.
Next up was a Pumpkin Gnocchi, Sicilian Pistachio Cream, artisan-made Pork Sausage and Black Truffle. This was taking posh pasta to a new level. I liked the fact that this was served on a dramatic black plate, which gave it a somewhat striking appearance. The richness of the pistachio, when combined with the pumpkin made for a very sumptuous feel to the dish; the gnocchi were rather delicate, but very well flavoured. Once more I enjoyed the decadence of a generous shaving of truffle.
In true Italian style, the pasta dish was followed up by a meat dish: Laticauda Lamb with a Fresh Mediterranean herbs mince. The lamb was tender and juicy and pink – just as it should be. There was a fondant potato, which had a crispy outside to it, but was wonderfully creamy inside and even had a little topping of whipped potato that was as smooth as any that I have ever eaten. The herbs and vegetables, we were told, were all taken from the restaurant’s farm. This was one of those serious dishes that packs so much flavour in to it, in combination with technically-complex, precision cooking.
We had these two courses with a Falerno del Massico from Villa Matilde (Campania, Italy), which was a blend of Piedi Rosso and Aglianico. I’d had mixed experiences with Campanian reds on my trip and this was another. It was deeply intense on the nose, fruity with plums and perfumed with roses. However, it certainly needed time to breathe; at the beginning it was very tannic and a little closed, which I felt clashed with the gnocchi dish. It came good though during the lamb dish, when it started to open up and the fruity notes became a lot more prevalent.
On to the cheese selection now – and what a selection. Once more the focus was on local and Italian cheeses. I must confess that I was not able to get down what all of the cheeses were, however they were served with a glorious pairing of accoutrements – almonds, honeycomb, etc. The cheeses really were very good – I finished my entire plate, although my wife, who was starting to flag at this point, did rather less well….
Before the dessert course we were presented with a little plate of petit fours. But wait, what was this? The people at Don Alfonso showed that they were not averse to a bit of showmanship by utilising some dry ice on the plate to create an ethereal, smoky affect to give it a little added mystique. There were little cannolis, little macaroons and nougats, which were all a great way to get my sweet tooth going.
For the desserts you could choose what you wanted from the a la carte menu. My wife opted for sorbets (as she was a little bit full at this point). I, being the glutton that I am, did not hold back; I went for their Concert of Lemon, Fragrance and Flavours. Those who read my Vinspire blog will know about the joy that is the Sfusato Amalfitano, the Amalfi lemon – and this was a homage to it. A lemon ice cream was served in a hollowed out lemon, with candied lemons on top. There was a piece of lemon sugar work and three profiteroles with a lemon cream sauce. Lemon heaven. Actually this was a very clever dish, with lots of intricate little pieces of work and varying textures; a very sophisticated and elegant way to end a tremendous menu.
With the dessert I took a glass of the 2012 Privilgeio from Feudi di San Gregorio, which was a late-harvest sweet wine made from Fiano. It had tropical notes on the nose, as well as something floral – jasmine, perhaps. On tasting it was sweet, yet refreshing, nice body to it with a medium finish.
This was a very special dinner and I would highly recommend anyone coming to this part of the world to check it out. It was, as you will probably have guessed, fairly pricey; but it was for my wife’s birthday and just like L’Oreal – she’s worth it.