Creating destination hot spots – places to see and be seen – is nothing new for Liberty Entertainment Group’s Nick Di Donato. For over three decades Di Donato has been cultivating “must try” eateries in both Toronto and Florida, with ten wildly successful venues and a business that caters to as many as 1.75 million people every year. Starting as a teenager, Di Donato started his career in the food service industry by bussing tables at his father’s Italian restaurant in Toronto’s West end. Jump forward to several years later, Di Donato is undertaking his most ambitious venture to date.
It’s one thing to create a supper club from scratch – the brainchild of one’s own vision – and quite another to strike a cohesive balance between the creator-investor’s vision while maintaining and honoring the traditions of a world-renowned, family-owned restaurant that’s been serving discerning patrons since the late nineteenth century.
And yet, with Don Alfonso 1890, he’s not only achieved just that, he’s already receiving prestigious awards and accolades, including: Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants in Canada 2019, Gambero Rosso ‘Opening of the Year’, DiRoNA – Distinguished Restaurants of North America, OpenTable’s Top 100 Restaurants in Canada 2019, Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, and most recently, voted the second best Italian restaurant in the world by ‘50 Top Italy’.
Di Donato may be used to rave reviews, but a nod from ‘50 Top Italy’ is something truly special. “Toronto is a sophisticated city that’s accustomed to international dining, but it’s not every day a Toronto restaurant is recognized on the world stage. To be named the second best Italian restaurant in the world by ‘50 Top Italy’ and receiving Opening of the Year from Gambero Rosso, Europe’s premier dinning guide, is truly a privilege,” he humbly explains.
And he knows he didn’t do it alone: “I am honoured that a Toronto restaurant has been recognized on the global stage among an international roaster of restaurants, and I want to congratulate three-star Michelin Chef Alfonso Iaccarino and my entire team at Don Alfonso 1890 Toronto, for receiving such an incredible honor. I look forward to keeping Toronto’s culinary scene front and center on the global stage.”
With three distinct spaces – main dining room, mezzanine lounge, and open concept kitchen – Ms. Di Donato’s flawless design is further enhanced by the existing architectural details, including hand-painted moldings and original pillars. With a gleaming open kitchen off the main dining room, diners can enjoy perfectly timed kitchen choreography.
At Don Alfonso, and throughout the Liberty empire, Ms. Di Donato designs and oversees every last detail – art, décor, lighting, linens, uniforms, service-ware – all are bespoke and unique, and glow like a pearl, with a creamy richness in lustrous tones of white, charcoal, and gold. But all sleek whiteness aside, the room is a feast for the eyes, with the beautifully macabre, white on white, skull and butterfly art piece – “Crane” – by French mixed media artist Philippe Pasqua vying for diners’ attention.
Color and drama is found in the occasional splash of provocative red in a painting by local artist, Daniel Mazzone, in a flash of fabric, and in Chef Ernesto Iaccarino’s vibrant dishes. Each plate has been designed or hand-selected to serve as a blank canvas for Chef Iaccarino’s cuisine, which is modern, and often whimsical, but well-rooted in classic Italian culinary traditions.
Chef Iaccarino’s menu is informed by the exceptional quality of the raw ingredients – local and international – procured for the kitchen, and his menu honors iconic Canadian foods such as, Manitoba bison, Nova Scotia lobster, and Acadian caviar. While his dishes are deeply connected to the past, they’re far from stuffy, offering many elegant vegetarian dishes, such as soy smoked organic tofu, and a savoury horseradish ice cream, to name but a few.
Once the kitchen was ready, Chef Iaccarino returned home to the Amalfi Coast and passed the torch to Toronto-born, Executive Chef Saverio Macri, who heads up the day to day operations with Chef de Cuisine, Daniele Corona. Macri spent time at Don Alfonso in Italy, studying under the father and son duo, honing his skills for this impressive undertaking and honor. As former Executive Chef of Cibo, since 2011 – another Liberty Entertainment Group restaurant – Chef Macri understands the brand well, and knows what’s at stake. “It’s been a privilege to be a part of Don Alfonso 1890 in Toronto. Spending several months in Italy working directly with Chef Ernesto and his team at the original location on the Amalfi Coast, has been an honor. I am grateful to be part of bringing this award-winning concept to Toronto,” says Macri.
The same attention paid to the menu is also given to the bar – a glowing slab of white Italian Carrara marble – with a fabulous selection of one-of-a-kind molecular created by Liberty Group’s corporate mixologist, Oliver Stern. Here, serving a drink at the bar is treated with the same gravitas as the cuisine, as is the impressive and well-selected wine cellar.
At flagship Don Alfonso 1890 in Italy, their monumental wine collection is cellared in a Roman-era tunnel running beneath the restaurant. In Toronto, it’s a more modern space, with over 650 labels from around the globe lining the walls of the space. The list has been curated to offer a broad range of styles – with a focus on Italian offerings – but also including unique varieties from up and coming regions, as well as several organic and biodynamic wines, while always perfectly complementing Chef Iaccarino’s unique dishes.