Casa Don Alfonso Brings the Amalfi Coast to St. Louis

Cafe Don Alfonso is an impressive as advertised.
Cafe Don Alfonso is an impressive as advertised. MABEL SUEN

Sitting at a gleaming, multi-colored-marble-topped table underneath blown-glass wisteria leaves while you gaze into the stunning copper-and-hand-painted-tile kitchen, it's hard to imagine that anything at Casa Don Alfonso could equal the splendor of the space itself. The restaurant is a masterpiece, so glorious it seems less like it was appointed by an interior design firm than cast down from above — at times, you almost think you hear the heavenly hosts singing over the soft Italian music that gently wafts through the air.

But then, just when you think nothing could be any more beautiful than the environs, your server walks up to the table with a small copper pot and a twinkle in her eye. "Are you ready for this?" she asks as she places her hand on the lid and gently lifts it to reveal the contents. There, a layer of still-bubbling white cheese, cooked to the point that it's punctuated with golden brown speckles, beckons you to pierce it to get to what's below. Handmade maccheroni noodles and hunks of ham bob in rich bechamel; as you scoop up a bite, your fork pulls up through the cheesy topping, which then clings to the noodle and adds an extra bit of decadence. It's the sort of dish you know is going to be excellent before it even reaches your mouth, but once it does, you receive confirmation beyond your wildest imagination. Much like the gorgeous room, it takes your breath away.

You'd expect nothing less from Casa Don Alfonso, the highly-buzzed-about restaurant that opened inside of the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton this March. To call this a hotel restaurant is to call the Hope Diamond a piece of rock. Casa Don Alfonso is a monumental culinary moment for St. Louis, thanks to its impressive pedigree that goes back several generations to the village of Sant'Agata on Italy's Amalfi Coast. There, Don Alfonso 1890 has sat for more than 100 years under the ownership of the Iaccarino family, operating as both a boutique hotel and restaurant that holds two Michelin stars. Over the years, the Don Alfonso 1890 brand has expanded its reach to include a few different iterations around the globe, with St. Louis serving as the first U.S. outpost of the storied restaurant.

The Don Alfonso majesty has not been diluted by its trip across the Atlantic. Short only of importing the Tyrrhenian Sea itself to St. Louis, the design team behind Casa Don Alfonso has impeccably translated the coastal, southern Italian experience to its digs inside the Ritz-Carlton. Though impossibly elegant, the restaurant is not at all stuffy; with the light, airy feel of a seaside villa, Casa Don Alfonso has a way of making you feel comfortable even in the midst of such luxurious beauty. Lemon trees, hand-painted Italian-style tilework on the kitchen walls and pastel-hued paintings of fruits and flowers evoke the sort of ease you'd feel sipping aperitivo on an outdoor terrace in Sant'Agata. Though you'd have an excuse to get dressed up if you wanted to do so, you would still feel comfortable walking into Casa Don Alfonso in a more relaxed ensemble.

click to enlarge Classical cod and potato veloute with capers, taggia olives, cherry tomato, roasted red onion and fennel salad. - MABEL SUEN
Classical cod and potato veloute with capers, taggia olives, cherry tomato, roasted red onion and fennel salad.

This welcoming feel comes as much from the hospitality as it does from the airy design. This is the Ritz-Carlton, of course, so you will feel well-tended-to from the moment you walk in the front door until the second you depart. Service is informative but not formal, kind but not obsequious. You'll get your water glasses filled after you take two sips, but you don't feel the pressure of your waiter standing along a wall staring at you to do so.

The food also captures this mix of elegance and comfort. Like the maccheroni — which is an old Iaccarino family recipe — dishes are simple and unfussy, and shine because of the quality of ingredients and care taken in preparing them. Beef carpaccio, for instance, is ruby red and sliced so paper-thin you can almost see through it. Simply garnished with arugula and a grain mustard aioli, it's perfection of the form. Burrata, too, is outstanding and not at all overdone. The baseball-sized sphere of cream-filled mozzarella oozes over its bed of arugula, cherry tomatoes and oregano. Verdant pesto pairs with the peppery greens to break up the burrata's richness.

Though billed as a first course, the eggplant parmesan is a worthy main attraction. Slices of the vegetable serve as sponges for mouthwatering tomato sauce and olive oil, while gooey cheese binds the entire concoction together. It's matched in splendor by Grandma's Ziti, a rustic pasta made with blistered cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced cloves of garlic, chili peppers and parsley. Anchovies from the Amalfi Coast add a subtle ocean backbeat to this bright dish.

click to enlarge Pizza chef Jeff Mondaca. - MABEL SUEN
Pizza chef Jeff Mondaca.

Casa Don Alfonso's pizzas are as quintessentially Neapolitan as what you'd find in a Campanian pizzeria. The sourdough crust is so soft it's like a leopard-spotted pillow, while the flat interior serves as a base for ultra-fresh toppings. The classic margherita pairs fior di latte cheese with vibrant tomato sauce and fresh basil; a Parma ham version is an excellent sauce-less pie that features prosciutto, arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Main courses are also thrilling. A rack of Colorado lamb, flawlessly cooked to the requested medium-rare, sits atop fresh herbs; when the lamb is pressed into them, it is infused with their flavor, which is a refreshing counter to the little bit of fat along the side of the meat. The star of the dish is the potatoes, however; the golden slivers, paired with baked onions, are roasted so beautifully, their crisp, olive-oil-soaked exterior and creamy inside bring a tear to the eye. It's like the Ferrari version of a French fry. Cod, too, dazzles from flawless execution — the fish skin is crisped up like a chip, while the flesh remains succulent — and the beautifully complementary flavors of olives, tomatoes and fennel. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the sea lapping against the cliffs in the distance.

To cap off the meal, Casa Don Alfonso offers several traditional Italian desserts, including its wonderful interpretation of tiramisu, a custard-like espresso and mascarpone concoction crowned with a thin chocolate ring with the words "Casa Don Alfonso" on it. Its riff on an ice cream cone is both whimsical and delicious. Here, a cone made from phyllo dough is filled with silken cinnamon pastry cream and garnished with an amarena cherry.

As delicious as they are, the only real thing you need to cap off your experience at Casa Don Alfonso is a chilled glass of limoncello. As you sip in the lemony nectar, you can't help but drift off to visions of the sun setting over an azure sea framed by vines of magenta-hued bougainvillea. Casa Don Alfonso may not be able to physically bring you to that magical Amalfi escape, but it certainly brings it to you.

Casa Don Alfonso
100 Carondelet Plaza (inside the Ritz-Carlton), Clayton; 314-719-1496.
A la carte breakfast Tues.-Sat. 6:30-10 a.m.; breakfast buffet Sat. 6:30-10 a.m. and Sun. 6:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; lunch Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. (Closed Mondays.)
Margherita pizza $16. Maccheroni gratin $18. Classical cod and potato veloute $34

Correction: Pizza chef Jeff Mondaca was misidentified in a cutline in an earlier version of this story. We regret the error.

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