By Antonino Pane
I confess, it is not easy emotionally to read in one go or reread the five hundred pages of a novel such as Raffaele Lauro’s latest work, “Don Alfonso 1890 - Salvatore Di Giacomo and Sant’Agata sui Due Golifi”, keeping the necessary detachment of a reporter, of a commentator or simply of a reader, when the narration proposes to you human and professional events, which are particularly exciting, which you directly or indirectly witnessed, or when the protagonists of these events are people, or rather characters that you have loved and appreciated, whom you continue to love and respect, because they occupy a non-secondary place in your affective universe. The unquestionable value of the first part of this book is the historical reconstruction of a myth, the founder of the Iaccarino dynasty, Don Alfonso Costanzo Iaccarino from Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, the creator of Pensione Iaccarino, which offered hospitality, tranquility and good cuisine to many famous figures, from tenor Enrico Caruso to poet Salvatore Di Giacomo. The second part, entitled not by chance Le Peracciole, the farm of Don Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino at Punta della Campanella, with its panorama over Capri and the Gulf of Naples, represents, in my opinion, a small masterpiece for its perfect correspondence, a kind of spiritual and moral consonance between sentiments expressed by the protagonists (Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino, with Nello Lauro) during their ideal and amicable dialogue, and the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding nature, triumphant of lights, colors, flavors and fragrances. An enchanted place, a paradise garden, a refuge, a temple erected by Don Alfonso for his cuisine, his love of nature, his myth of ancient classics and ultimately his inner dimension. Those who have, like me, the privilege of visiting and “enjoying” this unique location in the world, will agree with these expressions. I did not ask myself why Raffaele chose nobody else but Nello, an international star of hospitality, as the interlocutor of a star of world cuisine, knowing well in person their friendship, their collaboration and their mutual consideration, but how, ten years from the premature death of his beloved brother in Switzerland, he managed to preserve the feelings, preventing them from expiring in a purely justifiable sentimentality. We spoke about this, as always, with open hearts, without being able to escape a few memories which belong rightfully to our small personal stories.
Q.: It was not easy for you to write the second part of this new novel, which touches you closely!
A.: No one can understand it better than you, even though almost ten years have passed since Nello’s disappearance which left immense immeasurable void in the family and in everyone who respected him. A good man of strong personality, always positive, inexhaustible, communicative, adored and adorable, a true priest of unselfish friendship between people, peoples and nations. Lugano and Canton Ticino lost not only a great hotel manager who is difficult to replace, but also a very active animator and cultural organizer, passionate about lyrics and painting, a true attractor of political, institutional and artistic personalities. A motor of tourism. Fortunately I preserved the memory of the enthusiastic judgements that Nello expressed to me about Alfonso and Livia, whom he called the “royal couple of Italian restaurants and haute cuisine”. I was also helped by short stories, episodes and anecdotes about Alfonso and Livia, about their friendship with Nello, the spirit of solidarity and mutual admiration that animated their relationship and the common awareness of representing the Italian genius in the world. They felt ambassadors of the art of hospitality and, in their meetings abroad with foreign friends they never failed to mention the beauty of their home towns, Sorrento, Massa Lubrense and Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. I tried to find another interlocutor for Alfonso and Livia in Nello’s place, but in vain. I survived on emotions because in this part of the book I did not have to invent anything, so the dialogue between them, however ideal, in its content, times and places corresponds to historical reality, although in a synthetic way.
Q.: It is not the first time that you make use of dialogue in a dream-like key as narrative form to reveal the stories and psychological profiles of the protagonists of your novels! I remember your second book about Lucio Dalla, about the connection of the great artist from Bologna with San Martino Valle Caudina. Philosophical reminiscences?
A.: You are not entirely wrong, as the classic model of dialogue remains the ancient one, a philosophical matrix consecrated in the history of Western thought by Plato. As a specific narrative form in literature, dialogue facilitates communication, reveals the author’s voice better and is an expression of a more participatory and democratic culture. It seemed to me the most suitable, fresh and immediate form to bring out the comparison of ideas and values between equivalent personalities, equally: Alfonso and Nello; Nello, Alfonso and Livia.
Q.: Let’s go back to Le Peracciole. The choice of location where this dialogue takes place is evident.
A.: In fact, Alfonso and Livia had often invited Nello to visit their jewel, their agricultural estate, fertile, lush, torn from the rocks, co-essential to their own gastronomic philosophy. Without the products of Le Peracciole, Don Alfonso’s kitchen would not exist. Natural, genuine, Mediterranean. No other location would be more congenial, more suited to their dialogue. On the other hand, the agricultural estate represents also something else for Alfonso: the secret shelter, the kingdom of silence, the temple of rest, the place of reflection, the enjoyment of the beauty of nature, of our land. Always with the faithful dogs who’d follow him in hunting trails, even in Mongolia. Or chatting with the four peasants who cultivate crops, gardens, citrus groves, olive groves, medicinal herbs and many other plants of our rural tradition, which almost disappeared.
Q.: He knew well the determination of Don Alfonso and Livia in acquiring a property that had been uncultivated, abandoned, transformed within many years and with economic sacrifices into an Eden. They were almost ridiculed by relatives and friends, by those who did not understand their perspective, the perspective of two visionaries.
A.: Nello admired the courage of Alfonso and Livia, well knowing that the purchase was not a bargain, a challenge, but a necessity consistent with their gastronomic philosophy. They were right. Just think of lemon. Alfonso considers lemons as sacred fruits, miraculous, luminous, aesthetically pleasing too. The Sicilian lumie. Of course, they are not lemons in general, but “his” lemons, from Le Peracciole. His limoncello and his desserts, the famous lemon concerts, would not have been created without “his” lemons.
Q.: It fascinated me how Don Alfonso spoke of his lemons.
A.: Alfonso picks or has lemons picked every day, so he can always count on fresh, fragrant fruit for his desserts, including the famous lemon concert. To prepare the limoncello according to an old family recipe, which was appreciated by the famous singer Mireille Mathieu when she celebrated her birthday at Don Alfonso 1890. Mathieu always reminded it to Nello when they met in Lugano or in Paris. She’d enjoy in Sant’Agata the buffalo tomatoes from Le Peracciole and the limoncello prepared by Don Alfonso.
Q.: I found the lunch organized at Le Peracciole by Livia for her friend Nello fascinating, beneath the pergola covered with American wisteria brought from the Victoria Island, flourishing and fragrant, and besieged by flowering gardenia hedges brought from the East. The tablecloth, the porcelain, the menu...
A.: Everything was splendid, but Nello was struck in particular by Livia’s touch of great class, with the flower-shaped jar that decorated the table, the same jar as the one depicted in the famous painting by the impressionist painter from Barletta in Puglia, Giuseppe De Nittis, “Breakfast in the Garden”. She knew well of Nello’s passion for Impressionist painting and for De Nittis himself, the Italian epigone of Monet and Manet. And she was ecstatic when Nello recognized the detail and appreciated it, a detail so refined and so delicate towards her guest.
Q.: The two art passions of Nello, if I remember it well, were lyrics and painting.
A.: The first one was born from meeting the great soprano Renata Tebaldi and Luciano Pavarotti. The tenor also liked painting, like Nello. The second one comes from the friendship with Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the world’s largest private art collector, his mentor, who pushed him to dedicate himself to painting and acquired a painting by Nello in his prestigious collection.
Q.: Don Alfonso and Nello face in their dialogue other, more challenging topics, such as professional success, dedication to work, and the moral inheritance to be passed on to new generations, starting with their children.
A.: Both of them proudly claim their professional career and Don Alfonso, in particular, does it with illuminating expressions. “I am aware of belonging to a special family, dedicated to work, like my grandfather, our founder, as an expression of one’s own humanity and creativity. Like him, I do not have an egoistic and cumulative vision of success, prestige, and money, but I have a vision of participation and sharing with others. With the will to convey human and professional knowledge, which otherwise would be lost, to young people, children or students.” In fact, the score was the same for both of them: to be for Nello, and to continue to be for Alfonso, a “maestro” always looking towards the future.
Q.: They also touch upon the theme of hypermedia chefs present on television, in commercials, and in kitchens, the so-called chef-superstars, who fill gossip magazines with interviews.
A.: Don Alfonso’s response shared by Nello appears to be exemplary: “I do not judge others, though, sooner or later this excess of media exposure, which has little to do with high cuisine, will come back like a boomerang across the entire category. I never forget my origins, I try to stay with my wife always with our feet on the ground, like my grandfather Alfonso Costanzo and my father Ernesto.”
Q.: Don Alfonso gives a great answer to Nello from his position as head chef between two extreme poles: between chef – authoritarian dictator and chef – orchestra conductor.
A.: Alfonso does not deny that there is a need for order in the kitchen in addition to discipline and clarity of each person’s tasks. Not authoritarianism, but authority which does not descend from above, but arises from communication between the one who commands and the one who performs, from reciprocal feelings of esteem and consideration. Don Alfonso stands a thousand miles away from the figure of a chef-dictator, he is more inclined to chef-orchestra conductor.
Q.: Do you think reading this book might be useful to hospitality students?
A.: Authority concerns anyone who gives commands and has the responsibility over staff or a team. The concept of Don Alfonso can serve everyone, in a kitchen, on the bridge of a ship, leading a ministry or a political movement.
Q.: The final question. I read that your next book will be dedicated to the epic of Don Peppino Manniello and the ‘O Parrucchiano restaurant. Another historic catering facility in Sorrento known all over the world!
A.: In front of improvised restaurateurs in circulation, and chefs without history behind them who are inflating our districts, Don Alfonso 1890 of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi and ‘O Parrucchiano di Sorrento have deep roots starting from the nineteenth century. They had enlightened and genius founders, and they have arrived with prestige and success to the fourth generation. They are two flagships of our tourism and boast an international reputation. I am honoured and proud to be able to tell these stories and succeed in passing them on to younger generations.