Sunday, May 24, 2015

Welcome to Maxi- Maxi Restaurant, Vico Equense (Na)

I can't remember the last time I say so many hues of blue in one place.  Clean blues mingled with crisp whites greeted me as I entered the reception area of Hotel Capo La Gala. It was an early Thursday evening, I was at the gorgeous 5 star hotel awaiting to be accompanied to the Michelin star Maxi Restaurant to meet Chef  Domenico Iavarone and try some of his stellar dishes. The trip to meet the chef  included a trail with fantastic views of the Sorrento Peninsula, the sea, and the seashore. Colorful blues were joined by other crisp sunny colors mixed with bamboo and wood.
Upon arrival, at the end of the dining room I saw the chef along with key players of the dining room staff to include Maitre Giulia Tavolaro and Sommelier Alfonso Somma.  Each with a smile that said Welcome to Maxi!
A quick look around, then into the large colorful kitchen where I met the rest of the chef's brigade and chatted a little bit about the gourmet restaurant Maxi open in the evening, Nerea - their casual restaurant open for lunch, as well as the breakfast service.  It was clear to see that  the entire staff takes pride in each part of the food chain - not just the Michelin star restaurant.  And with that, the chef suggested that I head to the Capri Bar just below for aperitif.  I may just get a glimpse of that famous Vico Equense sunset he added as he looked out over the terrace.

Chef Domenico Iavarone

Capri Bar:
Home to cocktails, light snacks, and  swimming pool. It was here where I met head barman Michele Savarese. I told him I would like something easy before dinner.  He brought me his colorful cocktail The Siren's Land.  Siren, who in mythology, were known to be beautiful half woman/half bird singing beauties.  The beautiful colors created their own little palette on my small white end table as I began to enjoy the appetizers for the evening.

The sun had almost set, unfortunately the sunset was hidden behind the clouds.  That didn't matter. I decided to join the other guests at Maxi.
At Maxi, when the weather permits, guests dine outside at intimate candlelit tables.  An intimacy that is contagious, complete with low voices paired with a relaxing atmosphere.  I looked over the menu, which is a reflection of the chef's love of ingredients from the local territory blended with his gourmet touch. A gourmet menu which was not intimidating for an international clientele who packs the hotel season after season.  One could choose a la carte or decide to go for the tasting menus such as Vanessa (an appetizer, 2 first courses, a second course and dessert) or  Bianca (2 appetizers, 2 first courses, a second course and a dessert).  The tasting menus even offer a different glass of wine paired with care by sommelier Somma.

The light at the table was halfway between dusk and night bringing out the colors that only Maxi could give.  My benvenuto, my welcome...

Montanara with tomato sauce

Potatoes, squid ink, and grilled octopus

What better benvenuto - once again hitting on the strengths of Campania - tomato sauce, seafood...welcome to Maxi.

Appetizers: colorful and flavorful changing the mood of the evening - flavors became more intimate it seemed as the candlelight at the table fused with the overhead stylish Maxi lamp that hung above each table.
 Appetizers such as the chef's totano squid and potatoes - a classic dish presented here in style.  Potatoes cooked in the same water which prepared the squid, absorbing the rich flavors of the sea.  Topped with purple potato chips for not only a contrast in color, but a crunch as well.

Appetizers such as the chef's tuna with artichokes; crunchy and creamy style.  Not only a taste of territory, but a taste of the spring season as well.  A sprinkling of caffe' to make it special was greatly appreciated.

Candlelight greeted the next couple of dishes.  First up, linguine with a puttanesca sauce.  Listening to Maitre Tavolaro explain the dish was almost as exciting as trying it myself.  The puttanesca sauce was in reality a tomato gazpacho, she shared, giving an interesting contrast in temperatures between hot and cold.  The dish was made complete by the addition of flavor sea snails.

The next pasta dish -  Maxi's homemade tortelli pasta stuffed with the last broccoli greens of the season with clams and shrimp.

The second course was fish and chips.  But not your simple pub food.  We were at Maxi and the chef's chip were lightly fried, then baked for 48 hours at a low temperature.  These chips delicately covered the fish of the fish and chips- red mullet sided with romaine lettuce, radishes and Maxi' mayonnaise.

My relaxing evening was drawing to an end.  Hotel guests were heading to their room.  I, instead did not want to leave.  Not just yet.  There was a certain kind of welcoming silence.  The sound of the waves, the colors, the candlelight worked together in harmony.  But for me it was time for dessert and I decided on chocolate.
A dessert listed as cioccolato, noccilo, e arancia.  Chocolate, nocillo liqueur and orange.  But it was so much more.

That and a coffee with Iavarone before I faced up to the truth.  I needed to snap out of this colorful welcome to maxi dream, head back to my car, and back to reality.
I was reminded by Iavarone that I could always come back.  There were still a few of his dishes that I had't tried, then summer was on its way - that meant new products, a new menu.  And then there was the wine cellar that I wanted to get a peek at.

Then there was still that sunset that I missed out on thanks to hazy weather.

Welcome to Maxi...

To be continued.

Maxi Restaurant
Via Luigi Serio 8
Vico Equense (Na)
081 801 5757/58

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Don Alfonso 1890 - Spring in Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi (Na)

It was early that Saturday afternoon.  A half an hour or so before lunch time, and I was enjoying the silence in  the garden which separated the back entrance to the kitchen and Don Alfonso 1890's Scuola di Cucina.  The colorful pillows on the bamboo couch were the perfect benvenuto after a relaxing drive to the small town of Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi located about 20 minutes from the busy tourist haven  of Sorrento.  After a glass of acqua gassata fredda but not too much - after a welcome back/good to see you/how have you been  conversation with Maitre de Maison Mario Iaccarino, a chat with his mother   la Signora Livia Iaccarino,  Chef Ernesto Iaccarino came over to greet me.  It was my first visit of the season, my fifth season on the comfy couch and we had some catching up to do.
The calendar read early May, but the temperature that afternoon felt more like early summer . Greatly appreciated for the restaurant which was already enjoying a boom in business after opening for the 2015 season just a few weeks earlier.  They were packed the previous evening - Iaccarino shared.  And tonight? I wondered.  Saturday night was booked as well.  I was told.  But lunchtime... Molto piu tranquillo - much more relaxing.  Just a few guests. continued Iaccarino.  And speaking of lunchtime, it was time to get started.  That is when the chef asked me a question.  Where did I want to sit?
My favorite spot next to the window?  The table where I was first introduced to the cucina by Iaccarino 4 seasons earlier?  The table with a perfect view of the garden and kitchen?
hmmmm, maybe...
Or how about in the the chef's table. A spot right next to the pass where you can see all the action? I did enjoy myself there on a previous visit.
Or how about?....I thought to myself, while Iaccarino left me for a moment.  How about here?- the small dining room off the dining room.  Where the sun shone brightly through the windows that took up nearly 3/4 of the wall space.  A dining room bathed in luce,  where the bright colors, the pinks, the greens, the white white whites invited me to have a seat angle of Don Alfonso that I was unfamiliar with.  An angle nestled away in the corner, serving as my little private dining room for the day. Sure, I'd be alone...but what better way to concentrate on every little detail that makes Don Alfonso one of the most famous restaurants in the world.

I was handed the menu. I had been looking it over  menu for quite sometime when Mario Iaccarino came over. He had surely seen  my difficulty in deciding what to choose - should I go with the classics? - stick with familiar favorites? - try something new? 
Decidiamo insieme? he asked smiling.
Please, I answered. So over the next several minutes Mario and I went through the menu, course by course. He shared with me details such as what was in the dish, where the products were from, how they were prepared, what flavors would stand out, would they be strong, delicate...
In the end we decided.
Grazie for that personal touch.  That attention to detail.
I decided to take a look around...explore with different eyes.  I noticed everything.  The freshly cut flowers - that where bright and vibrant in color, but light in aroma.  To complement, not overpower. The theme continued in the fish bowl, where I introduced myself to another single diner...a small blue fish enjoying his spot in the sunlight among the colorful flowers that decorated his fishbowl.

Attention to detail.

When I returned to my table, I discovered a glass of Ca del Bosco and a vase of chips.  Two chips to be exact.  One made with tumeric, the other with black squid ink.

 Casually followed by the first of two benvenutos.  The first - an artichoke heart topped with a creamy pea sauce and mozzarella cheese.

Next up - a baby squid stuffed with provolone del monaco cheese with a consomme' of spring vegetables from the family's farm in nearby Punta Campanella.

A consomme' that was poured in front of me at my table by a knowledgeable server who as he poured the delicate liquid, explained the dish with the same delicatezza

Attention to detail.

Earlier, with Mario I had chosen a couple of appetizers...something old/something new.  We began with something new. An appetizer light and easy - one that once again highlighted the freshness of the the season with the exceptional quality of the products cultivated on the family's farm.  Fennel, zucchini, beets, onions, artichokes to name a few...paired with an eye-popping horseradish ice cream.

Attention to detail.
Something old -ish.  A dish that was introduced back in 2011.  A favorite -  lobster 'zeppole' appetizer with sweet and sour and citrus sauces for dipping/devouring.  And I did.  Noticing the the crispy coating, the crispy curly vegetables, the sweet/sour sauce paired with the citrus to give just the right contrast.

Attention to detail.

Back to something new-well- a second look at another favorite.  Duck breast with  cinnamon and borage,  apple compote and balsamic vinegar.  How could one not notice the artwork  that the kitchen staff placed on the plate.  The white dish was a canvas for what seemed almost astronomical designs made with the various reductions.  I noticed.

Attention to detail.

The dishes continued.  Each with that famous Don Alfonso touch, that Don Alfonso attention to detail.
New for 2015 - Don Alfonso 1890''s carnaroli rice with notes of citrus fruits from the garden with sea urchin emulsion and scampi. when maitre Paolo Ciaramitaro  brought me this dish, it came with strict instructions from the chef. I was not to mix the rice around with the sauce and shrimp. Instead, take a little bite of each at a time. The white dish once again was a canvas- beet and squid ink.  A sprinkling of orange powder.

It was hard to stay away from the bread basket.  A bounty that had been sitting on the table for quite some time.  At one point Signora Livia came over to see how I was doing  and pointed out that one piece of bread in particular - one small loaf - was special.  I had already noticed.  A loaf of bread  made with durum wheat perfect to pair with the family's olive oil.

Two more first course assaggi found their way to my table.  The gnocco acqua e farina which I wrote about here....

The second was a pleasant surprise - one that  I discovered when I walked into the kitchen.  My eyes followed sous chef Nicola Pignatelli from a distance as he prepared this dish of cappelli pasta filled with braised chicken, onion gravy, parmigiano cheese, and black truffles.

I decided to visit the kitchen again, snoop around to see what Chef Iaccarino and his brigade was up to.  Perfect timing.  They were preparing my secondo piatto.  Snapper.  Coriandolo, he said.  Coriander.  It gives an amazing aroma and more importantly, flavor to the dish, he shared.And o prove that point, I was offered   a small sprig of this plant to taste and enjoy the aromas as well.

A secondo that cooks 7 minutes in a glass jar.  The flavors and aromas that came out of this jar of 'dentice cotto non cotto', well, you have no idea! Snapper, coriander, lemon, mandarin.

Attention to detail.

Mario Iaccarino and I had decided earlier  to end my Spring 2015 gastronomical journey here.  Well, almost...
Dessert was next...
beginning with a fresh pre-dessert to clean the palate.  A lemon sorbet (with lemons from guess where) strawberries and verbena.

Attention to detail.

The small pastry tray arrived, and just as I was about to take a closer look, a mint syrup was poured over a tray of dry ice creating an incredible minty aromatic cloud.  On the tray - a mini Sicilian cannoli, a morbidezza  with yogurt and banana on crunchy almonds, chocolate and  turmeric , strawberry, and a strawberry macaroon. A walnut semifreddo. 

Attention to detail.

 Last but not least, a dish close to my heart.  One that arrived a few minutes after pastry chef Tommaso Foglia called out to me from the kitchen window while I was walking along the garden stretching my legs.
Dessert's ready! he said.
I hope it's chocolate, I said smiling.
A smile was his answer.
And there, in my private dining little corner, I was presented with a geometricla chocolate extravaganza.  Chocolate mousse in the shape of a pyramid, a chocolate triangle, a cube of chocolate with an arugula garden.  A chocolate souffle in a shortcrust pastry.

Lunch over. And my afternoon ended almost as it began.  In the garden.  On that comfy couch. With Chef Iaccarino. Catching up.

Attention to detail.

Don Alfonso Spring 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Back to Beluga Skybar - An Aperitivo Speciale, Romeo Hotel (Na)

Back to Beluga Skybar for aperitivo hour.  Back for something a little extra ordinary.  Something different from the usual cocktail/glass of wine/peanuts and and olives.
In an earlier post  I spoke about an amazing club sandwich that I enjoyed/devoured.  But man does not live on club sandwiches alone, so what does one do when craving an amazing array of appetizers prepared by Michelin star Chef Salvatore Bianco before the hotel's restaurant - Il Comandante opens?  Simple.  Visit Beluga.
I found out that at Beluga, guests can order something diversa, different from the usual snack menu and discover amazing appetizers with that special view.

A view that you may forget for a short while when a tray like this one arrives.  Full of color, full of aperitivo speciale...

I started here- with a crunchy rice cake made with black squid ink. The chef added his puttanesca sauce - a twist on the classic tomato sauce with olives, capers.  Droplets of anchovy butter casually placed around this croccante di riso not only add to this appetizer visually, but  give it  a burst of flavor as well.

Also on the well polished wooden tray was this...

A small tart made with parmigiano cheese, a mortadella mousse, and a gelatin made with balsamic vinegar.

Crunchy on the outside...

Sausage and friarielli greens on the inside.  

From crunchy to smooth...a creamy butter... pair with this freshly baked cornetto topped with sesame seeds.

And this?  The presentation makes you stop to admire it for a short while.  The chef explained that it was reminiscent of the stereotypical laundry lines that Naples is famous for.  Clotheslines full of laundry drying in the Neapolitan sun.

This appetizer, however, was a soft pliable taco made with beet.  Inside?  Soft provolone del monoco cheese.

To the left, what seemed to be a  shiny stone that you would find on the beach.

Instead, the chefs version of cod with potatoes.  On the outside, soft, morbido...inside savory.

I continued my clockwise tour with this spongy creation...Basically a whisper of sage...

I finished up my aperitivo speciale with this little treat with a potato crocche' filled with blue buffalo milk cheese.

Beluga Skybar & Restaurant
Breakfast: from Monday to Friday from 7:00 am to 10:30 am.
Saturday and Sunday from 7:00 am to 11:00 am.
Bar & Lunch: from 12:30 pm to 02:30 pm
Bar & Snack: from 02:30 pm to 08:00 pm