How a Macau fine dining Italian restaurant became a casual family friendly eaterie: the transformation of Don Alfonso 1890
On his first visit to Macau since sweeping changing were made to his 11-year-old fine-dining Italian restaurant, chef Alfonso Iaccarino is pleased with the new Casa Don Alfonso – and has big plans in store for next year
Alfonso Iaccarino is a bit jet-lagged but happy to be in Macau, where he was visiting his newly transformed restaurant in the Grand Lisboa hotel.
During our weekday lunch he made the rounds saying hello to guests, some of whom he has met before, and giving out big hugs.
Most of the 71-year-old’s time is spent in a small town called Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi near Sorrento, on the Amalfi coast in southern Italy. There he operates a restaurant, Don Alfonso 1890, that uses produce from his organic farm, including herbs, vegetables, fruit and olive oil made from his own olives. The restaurant is attached to a boutique hotel that has eight suites.
It is a family-run business: his wife Livia runs the hotel; his older son Mario looks after the overall business; and his younger son Ernesto is a chef who takes turns with his father visiting their various outlets around the world.
Iaccarino has developed such a rapport with his guests in Asia that more are coming to visit him in Sant’Agata. “More and more Chinese are coming, from Hong Kong and Macau. It’s nice to see friends visit me. Some stay in the hotel, others come and eat for lunch and dinner,” he says.
His restaurant in Macau, which opened in 2007, has undergone some big changes since last November. On this one-week visit, Iaccarino is seeing them for the first time.
What was previously a fine-dining Italian restaurant named after his Sant’Agata establishment has become the casual eaterie Casa Don Alfonso (or “Don Alfonso’s home”). This evolution meant the dining room had to be thoroughly renovated: the beautiful wooden floor was retained, but out went numerous chandeliers, the dim lighting and pictures of Sant’Agata. The new room is much brighter, decorated in pastel shades of white and light blue, with bird and floral motifs, banquette seating for large groups, and gold accents.
The menu has changed as well. It now features more family-style dishes such as a seafood casserole – a large copper pot filled with prawns, fish, clams and squid. Several favourites remain though, such as spaghetti Don Alfonso and cannelloni stuffed with pork and beef served with Neapolitan ragout, along with desserts including the Neapolitan puff pastry stuffed with cinnamon cream and sour cherries.
One big new selling point is the pizzas and calzones, made by pizzaiolo Maurizio Ferrini in an electric pizza oven.
Previous chef de cuisine Claudio Favero left soon after the changes were made and went to Sabatini Ristorante Italiano in the Royal Garden Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui East. New face Giovanni Galeota, who has worked with Iaccarino on and off since 2012, now heads the kitchen team in Macau.
So far Iaccarino is pleased with how Don Alfonso in Macau has evolved. “I like the casual concept,” he says, adding that it is one of only a few family-friendly restaurants in Macau’s casinos and that the space feels bigger and has a younger atmosphere.
Iaccarino has big plans for next year – it will be his 50th wedding anniversary and he wants to hold some elaborate celebrations, including in Macau. “Livia and I founded [the original] Don Alfonso 1890 in 1973 and we have never lost the philosophy of using top-quality ingredients and the best olive oil and pasta in Italy. We sell food and happiness. People feel happy in a restaurant.”
He has always had a soft spot for Macau, having visited the then Portuguese colony for the first time 38 years ago.
“At the time I was studying hotel management [in Stresa, Italy] and I wanted to see the best hotels around the world. So I took my wife on a round-the-world ticket and we went to stay in hotels like the Waldorf Astoria in New York, The Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore and the Savoy in London.
“In Hong Kong we stayed at The Peninsula. It was there that I read about Macau – that it was visited by an Italian Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, in 1582. I said we must go to see what Macau is like. We saw it was a very small place and very different from China, with Portuguese influence.”
But it was not until 2005 that he next came across a link to the territory, when Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun came to Sant’Agata. “He met me and my wife and said he wanted to open a restaurant in Macau. I said, ‘Macau! I have been there before!’”
Iaccarino has visited Macau 49 times since then – another reason to celebrate when he comes back next year.
Casa Don Alfonso, 3/F, Grand Lisboa Macau, Avenida De Lisboa, Macau, tel: (853) 8803 7722