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Lunch in an Italian Garden

A chef and his wife take the day off from their three-star restaurant on the Amalfi Coast for a family feast

Alfonso Iaccarino inches his van down a narrow, unpaved road on a dramatic descent toward the rocky Amalfi Coast. We arrive at the gates of La Peracciole, the farm he owns with his wife, Livia. With a sharp turn, Alfonso heads the van down an even steeper track through terraced fields neatly planted with all manner of vegetables. The Mediterranean shimmers below the cliffs; the island of Capri, about four miles offshore, looks much closer in the afternoon sun.

The Iaccarinos have brought me to their farm on this stunning stretch of the Italian coast southeast of Naples for a picnic on a rare day off. They are the owners of Don Alfonso 1890 in the town of Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, one of only three restaurants in Italy with three Michelin stars. Alfonso, the chef, creates extraordinary food loosely based on such traditional regional dishes as fritto misto and roast rabbit with wild herbs. Almost every fruit, vegetable and herb that he uses is grown organically at La Peracciole, two miles away. Many restaurants in Italy keep small gardens, but a place that maintains an actual farm is quite unusual.

More than a decade ago, Livia's mother gave her a parcel of weed-covered land. The Iaccarinos spent many months building up the soil, which had been neglected for years. Farming on Amalfi is tough, irrigation horribly costly. The Iaccarinos, though, were not to be put off. La Peracciole now covers eight acres and produces, among other things, lemons, peaches, tomatoes, artichokes, eggplants, shell beans, squash and lettuces, as well as olives, from which they press a highly prized oil. "It has taken us 10 years to do this," Livia says. "It all started with the smell of fresh produce delivered to the restaurant. It made us want to grow our own."

We pull up behind a fleet of scooters and motorcycles. "Ciao! Ciao!" Alfonso and Livia call out to their cousins, nieces and nephews who have come to the farm for the day. A long dining table is placed in a clearing and set with an heirloom lace tablecloth, sterling silver flatware and crystal glassware. Seeing the three-star trappings, I wonder out loud about chairs. Livia looks up in astonishment. "There are no chairs at an Italian country picnic!" she says. "We fill our plates, we find a soft spot on the grass and we relax."

Alfonso cuts into his pizza rustica, a double-crusted pie filled with ricotta and wild-boar salami, both made on the farm. The first slice goes to Tomie, the dog, who leaps to grab it. "This I love," Alfonso says. "It is not what we serve at the restaurant, it is a dish from the farm, but I base everything on this kind of food. I make pizza rustica for the staff so that they understand the culinary traditions I work from."

"Do you want to see the farmhouse?" he asks, and before I can respond, he takes my arm and leads me up a steep incline. Behind an ancient, stooped olive tree is a 300-year-old stucco building that is home to chickens, pigs, six large turkeys and 12 cows. "We will live in this house one day when we can fix it up," Alfonso says. "For now, everything we have goes into the farm. It is crazy, really. We lose money on it. But then we make money on the restaurant, so what does it matter?"

We scramble down the hill toward the picnic but are halted by cries of "Basilico! Basilico!" Alfonso ambles off and returns a moment later buried behind a bouquet of basil. The picnic is ready: lobster-and-citrus salad, eggplant timbales, a caponata of escarole and cod. Livia spoons sliced peaches into tumblers and fills them with spiced red wine. We raise our glasses. "We live, we eat, we breathe the restaurant," she says. "This is vacation!"

Story by Susan Herrmann Loomis, the author of The Italian Farmhouse Cookbook, which will be published in February by Workman Press.

Published August 1999
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