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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sorrento, Italy: Is Don Alfonso the French Laundry of Italy?

I was surprised to find that one of the best, fanciest restaurants in all of Italy was situated in a small town adjacent to Sorrento, a port city where many people take the boat to go to the islands of Capri or other picturesque waterfront towns. Dining at Don Alfonso was a fantastic experience, both for the meal itself as well as the stellar service. It's what I would imagine dining at French Laundry would be like -- excellent food, super attentive service in a quaint setting.

We tried two of the tasting menus, one more elaborate than the other (guess which I had). What followed was a parade of beautifully constructed, innovative Italian cuisine where each of the courses were in harmony with each other to culminate into a well-balanced and satisfactory meal.

Curiously, one of the most memorable dishes of the eight-course meal I had wasn't even mine. The ricotta cheese that was part of my dinner companion's six-course meal was what stuck in my mind. The antipastwas called "panzarottino," "arancino" flavored with chocolate, green pepper stuffed with tuna and anchovy of Cetara, grilled and marinated zucchini, salami and daily (which I think should be "dairy," hence the cheese) products. Yes, a mouthful to say and to eat.

The cheese was so flavorful that I could only extol the virtues of Italian milk and water. Why else would this humble ricotta cheese taste so darn delicious? Panzarottino is like a calzone and an arancino is like a deep fried rice ball. This one didn't have rice in it, probably an interpretation of the original. I'm not sure about adding chocolate to a savory dish (I'm not a huge fan of black mole either) so it didn't work for me but the combination of the textures definitely wasn't lost on me -- the warm, crunchy ball that was salty with the charred, smoky grilled zucchini and chewy, salty charcuterie, topped off with the creamiest ricotta cheese ever. How I long for this cheese in the US...To no avail.
My tasting menu started with this beauty to the left -- fried pepper with whipped cod fish, salmon eggs and dehydrated green olives with dried cod emulsion with yellow tuna mousse. Ok, I wasn't crazy about the idea of a "whipped cod fish" but it was ok. Again, the varying textures really sang in my mouth. Plus, I always like to pop fish eggs in my mouth even though I find them too salty.

The starter for my dinner companion was stewed octopus on a bed of couscous with vegetables and a foam of Provola cheese (delectable smoked buffalo mozarella) and cinnamon. You can see by the ingredients they used like couscous that unlike some of the most emphatically purist chefs, Don Alfonso is more embracing of non-traditional Italian ingredients. I fell in love with all things smoked cheeses at this last trip. It imparts a type of flavor that's so unique and adds such an interesting dimension to run-of-the-mill cheeses (not that this one would have been ordinary if it weren't smoked).

The second course was duck breast scented with cacao, orange compote, banana puree and red wine reduction. I found the duck a tad gamey despite the infusion of all these sweet and yummy things. It wasn't earth-shatteringly original either. Not my favorite.

The third course was like a matzo ball soup that used ricotta cheese for the balls and fish consomme broth instead of a chicken broth. The broth was actually infused with verbena, lemon zest and nettle, which gave it a clean, refreshing taste that was not at all fishy. I didn't love the textures of the ricotta morsels but their saving grace was that they were made out of ricotta, my newfound love.
My pasta course was a dumpling stuffed with chicken, Genovese ragu, a fondue of Parmesan cheese topped with vegetable chips. Maybe Don Alfonso was a disciple of Ferran Adria (kidding) but he had its share of foams, emulsions and Adria-esque concoctions. It was good but again, textures were what spoke to me. Soft, crunchy and creamy at the same time.

My companion's pasta course was ravioli stuffed with a decadent soft cheese called caciotta, marjoram and tomatoes with a mozzarella sauce. A bit on the heavier side, but creamy and the fresh basil leaves it came with made it more refreshing.

For the main fish course, I had grouper flavored with vanilla and lemon, string bean, horseradish croquette and colatura (salted anchovy sauce) foam. The grouper was perfectly cooked, soft and juicy. I've never met a croquette I didn't like, so that was a no brainer. I also love spicy, so the horseradish croquette was probably my favorite item on the dish.
I've never had vanilla-flavored fish before, so that was a unique treat. The aroma wasn't too strong so it didn't overpower the flavor of the fish. As for the crunchy croquette with an oozingly soft interior...need I say more?

The other tasting menu's main dish was a poached fish or acqua pazza, in a tomato sauce. It was decent but again, nothing to write home about.

My meat course was a guinea fowl stuffed (what's with all this stuffing?) with goose liver, a saffron potato puree, spicy tomato, green anchovy sauce and fried spaghetti. I felt like there was too much going on and the meat was a bit gamey for my taste.

Now onto the fantastic cheese course. Wow. I was already taken by all the wonderful cheeses I had encountered during my trip so far. This was a sampler of the best cheeses this region had to offer, so what's not to like?

The desserts were just as beautiful but I have to say, none blew me away. What did blow me away were the selection of local wines. We had the option of ordering specific ones or just going with sommelier's choice of red, white, sparkling (spumante) or dessert wines.

Every time we asked for one, it was a revelation from my formerly very limited knowledge of Italian wines. I'm no expert now but at least I appreciate the fact that there are so many other wines besides just Chianti or Prosecco.

This restaurant also runs a very fancy bed and breakfast and has a library of cookbooks as well as a world-renowned cellar next door.
Both the manager and Don Alfonso himself stopped by our table to check in on us. Actually, the manager stopped by several times. The meal isn't cheap by any stretch (I didn't like that the menu didn't show the prices) but may be worth going at least once if you can afford it and want a memorable meal while traveling in Southern Italy.

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