Malcolm Jolley: Dispatch from Rome: Drinking Frascati at lunch and Casanese at dinner

People sit at outdoor tables as they enjoy a drink on a Friday evening, in Rome's Campo dei Fiori square, Friday, May 22, 2020. Andrew Medichini/AP Photo.

This post is being written in a flat just north of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The story of its geographical origin is too long for this post’s word allowance, but I hope it’s enough to say that family and I have finally made it to the Eternal City on our third try since March 2020. Our interest-free loan made to Air Canada at that time has been called in and converted into real tickets, so this March Break we are taking advantage of what was once called, in before times, international travel. It’s good to be back.

Also good are the wines we have been drinking over the last few days. My wife and our friends, with whom we are traveling, have stuck to what we can drink from Lazio, the provincial region in which Rome is situated. So far, we have only ordered local wines, like Frascati1Frascati is a white wine which is arguably the most famous (of either color) produced anywhere in the Lazio region. It has a heritage dating back many centuries, and its appellation was established in 1966.”,be%20brut%20or%20extra%20dry or other fresh and crisp whites made with, for instance, the Bellone grape, at lunch. In the evening it’s been Cesanese, which we are discovering is a versatile and rewarding red wine grape.2“Cesanese is an ancient red-wine grape originating in Italy, in the Cesanese Comune area of the Lazio region, around Rome.

Some of the Cenasese wines we have ordered have been pleasant and friendly fruit-forward quaffers. Occasionally, though, we’ve won the wino lotto and hit something more ethereal, like the rose aroma’d one we had at Al Moro, near the Trevi Fountain, that was as elegant and as fine as my traditional Roman dish of tripe.

It was not that long ago that a “local” wine on a Roman list was from Umbria or even Tuscany. But like everywhere else, the Romans seem to have embraced the ethos of the locavore, and I am happy to say that I am doing, and drinking, well by it. Canadian importers: please get yourselves to Rome and bring us back some of these wines.

To be traveling again, after two years of COVID, really is a great pleasure, and what’s also a great pleasure is eating out in restaurants. The rules here are similar to the ones we have at home in Toronto (or did when we left). It is masks on if you’re not sitting down at your table, and before you get seated they check your papers to make sure you’re fully vaccinated, which means a double jab and a boost. When it comes to dining out, one of the many advantages the Italians have over us Canadesi is their climate. The tables out in the piazze are full again, and it’s easy to pretend the pandemic never happened. Eating out in a restaurant is a normal and anxiety-free thing.

Before we left for Italy, the closest I got to a normal dining experience that reminded me of such a thing that was once called fine dining was at the Toronto outpost of the Italian Michelin starred restaurant, Don Alfonso 1890. The survival of Don Alfonso over the last two years is one of the better stories of Canadian gastronomy. This is due to the perseverance and vision of Nick and Nadia Di Donato and the Liberty Entertainment Group, who moved the restaurant from the old Consumer’s Gas Building in Toronto’s financial district uptown to Casa Loma, where they run the catering and operate BlueBlood Steakhouse.

Don Alfonso Toronto didn’t just survive COVID and the cruel cycle of lockdowns that has gutted so much of the hospitality industry in Canada, it actually won a big award: the best Italian Restaurant outside of Italy, as declared by The Best Italian Restaurants in the World 2022 – Prosecco DOC Award classification.3Don Alfonso 1890 Toronto is the best venue for Italian cuisine outside of our national borders. This has been declared by The Best Italian Restaurants in the World 2022 – Prosecco DOC Award classification. This ranking is part of the 50 Top Italy brand, the noteworthy, freely accessible online guide that was created by LSDM, the International Congress of gourmet cooking, and by the journalistic publication Luciano Pignataro Wine&Food Blog.”

The restaurant is run by Chef Daniele Corona, who moved from Italy to Toronto to open it just before COVID came to pass. But, with the modern miracle of the Internet, Chef Ernesto Iaccarino “visits” the kitchen every day from the original Don Alfonso, just south of Naples.4“Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 reflects a philosophy that is innovative while respecting the local food culture and the old traditions of the Sorrento peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. Nestled in a 19th century Neapoletan building, the restaurant is filled with bright colors – lilac, yellow, orange and pink – which look lovely with the natural, Mediterranean light, transporting guests to the extraordinary atmosphere of Southern Italy.”

The idea is that the experience is as close to the original as possible, though, of course, the ingredients may differ owing to location, like the tenderloin of Manitoba bison on the Canadian menu.

Nadia and Nick Di Donato at Casa Loma. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

I sat down with Nadia and Nick Di Donato in the library bar in Casa Loma a few weeks ago when the news of Don Alfonso’s award was fresh. Nick Di Donato is one of Toronto’s most successful restaurateurs, managing to do well in a business that is infamous for its low margins and financial casualties. And yet he insisted that the Don Alfonso project was “not about making money.” Nadia, who thoroughly manages the design of the Liberty restaurants, backed this up, explaining that for the couple this is a passion project and they were not going to let Don Alfonso in Toronto die without a fight: “The city needs this,” she explained.

For now, Don Alfonso at Casa Loma is technically a “pop-up”, taking up space in the castle’s solarium, which in normal times would be used to host events, like weddings or anniversary parties. Where Don Alfonso ultimately ends-up is still up in the air: Casa Loma is owned by the City of Toronto, and there are all kinds of rules and regulations that govern how it is used. I am just glad that there is fine dining still—and that the castle’s hundred-year-old wine cellar (which had been half boarded up and used as a staff change room) is being filled again.

Should any Hub readers be heading to Rome, they may be interested to know that we have had excellent meals at La Travernaccia da Bruno in Trastevere, Il Sorpasso in Pratti, the classic Al Moro at the Trevi Fountain, La Carbonara in Monti, and Flavio all Velavevodetta in Testaccio.

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