Today we feature a guest blog post by Chicago Tribune freelance writer David Sharos. David contacted us wanting a cooking vacation in Italy that was above and beyond his previous experiences, and we think his trip to Don Alfonso 1890 fit the bill perfectly! Read on to learn more about the food he made, the places he visited, and the people he met.
The Cooking Classes
Meals at Don Alfonso’s cooking classes leave little room to eat much else, but my wife and I managed to work out half day trips to both Positano and Sorrento to sample the local food there. These side trips were partially coordinated once again with the help of Adrian who remembered a variety of restaurants in the area and offered suggestions about taxis or bus trips.
I would urge readers to utilize the wealth of experience The International Kitchen offers as you’ll get so much more out of your trip.
Cooking at Don Alfonso brought a new cadre of fellow chefs as others visiting the area took an a la carte approach and popped in for a morning session. Actually, that was part of the fun as we met folks from around the U.S. and from England who shared our experiences.
We made fresh fish– a spectacular experience in both sight and taste as we stared at fish and shrimp that were just caught hours before landing in the Don Alfonso kitchen. Farm-to-table has been the rage here in the U.S. for years – but living landlocked in the Midwest affords none of us the opportunity to eat sweet shrimp that were so red – it looked as though they were bathed in paprika.
Sous chef Nicola Pignatelli showed us how to filet something that was similar to a red snapper and while most of the students balked at removing the flesh from the backbone, I put on my surgical gloves and dove in.
We also cleaned the shrimps and made a stock with fresh vegetables from the Alfonso farm for what the Italians call acqua pazza or “crazy water” – a way that fishermen still cook fish right from the water either on their boats or on shore.
There is an episode of British chef Jamie Oliver doing the same thing on one of his shows from the “Jamie Cooks Italy” series.
The wine pairings at Don Alfonso are spectacular and on this day, we were served a white wine that my wife later bought from them at a cost of over 100 euros – far more than we would ever spend on a wine here at home. But the point is that meals are accompanied by top quality wines, presented by the highly trained staff.
Check out the picture of Silvana Amato, a niece of the Iaccarino family, showing off the catch of the day.
Our final day at Don Alfonso became a private cooking class as only my wife and I participated in making what may have been the biggest showstoppers in terms of flavor and complexity of the dishes.
Silvana Amato talked with us the day before and actually tailored the dishes based on input from me as well as ideas she and sous chef Nicola Pignatelli discussed. They included a pasta dish, a fillet of beef wrapped encased in a crunchy crust, and one of the house specialties that is dramatic as well as complex.
Pignatelli made a batch of pasta dough the night before [I would rather we had made it together] and precisely rolled it through a machine before ripping the dough sheets into ribbons known as tagliolini that were cooked in a broth made from sautéed shrimp and julienned orange and lemon peels. The color and flavor of this was spectacular.
The meat dish known as “beef fillet in bread crust with a spicy tomato and green sauce” involved smearing a chicken and cheek lard pate on a carefully sliced piece of bread and rolling the fillet inside it. The loaf was actually deep fried for a few short minutes before finishing in the oven. While this is not a dish for the novice cook, its execution and presentation were impressive.
The Vesuvio di Rigatoni is found pictured throughout many of the Don Alfonso publications as it is a signature dish made in honor of the famous volcano which overlooks the bay and city of Naples. The dish and its components are too involved to explain, but it involves placing half cooked rigatoni in tin foil molds. The still-very firm pasta is stood up and packed in a circle and the inside is filled with small meatballs, minced egg, a fresh pea and onion mixture and a mozzarella sauce.
In the end, I find the most compelling takeaways from any travel experience are the things you see and the people you meet.
My wife and I loved our breakfasts each morning that were served by Antonio Cacace and Livia Hornyak – two incredibly professional and precise people who made great eye contact, greeted your warmly and did everything to make you feel serving you personally was all that mattered.
On the day we left, they both insisted on coming in early to serve us breakfast before we returned to Naples.
The kitchen staff at Don Alfonso is a well-oiled machine with chefs deftly crating dishes and those in training that swoop in, clean everything with surgical precision, and leave the cooking school kitchen picture ready for the next day.
I had the chance to meet and talk with the owners as well as other members of the family who clearly work tirelessly and take great pride in being one of most revered establishments in the Campania region.
And finally, there is the staff at The International Kitchen that has clearly taken the time to immerse itself in the various cooking schools it offers as well as the areas where they are located.
I’m convinced my passion for learning more about the cuisine and people of the country that are part of my heritage hasn’t been abated, and I expect The International Kitchen will very much be a part of my next adventure.
David Sharos is a 26-year free-lance writer for the Chicago Tribune and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you would like to cook with the Iaccarinos and their team of chefs on an Amalfi Coast cooking vacation, contact us for details!
By Peg Kern
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