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Food & Drink

Inside the kitchen of Davide Ciavattella, the executive chef at Don Alfonso 1890

Including a frozen rabbit, tomatoes from Mount Vesuvius and a 30-year-old balsamic

By Caroline Aksich| Photography by Jelena Subotic
Inside the kitchen of Davide Ciavattella, the executive chef at Don Alfonso 1890

Six months ago, Davide Ciavattella was working as the chef de cuisine at Don Alfonso 1890’s Sorrento location and living in a spacious house on the Amalfi Coast with his wife, Serena Staiano, and two children. But promotion beckoned, so the family—who knew little about Toronto beyond Ciavattella’s proclivity for the Raptors—made a transatlantic move so that Ciavattella could become the executive chef at the restaurant’s Michelin-star Harbourfront outpost.

There were some obvious downsides to the relocation. “The sea is my natural place,” says Ciavattella. “Lake Ontario looks a bit like it, but it’s not quite the same.” He speaks nostalgically of the briny urchins that can be plucked straight out of the Tyrrhenian and of pezzogna, a type of southern Italian sea bream that remains firm yet juicy when grilled over charcoal with salt and olive oil. “I was scared to make the change, especially without speaking much English,” says Ciavattella. “But it’s been great. We’re really enjoying how multicultural the city is.”

Ciavattella holds a knife, and leans on his kitchen counter with a serious expression

Helming Don Alfonso 1890 (the second-best Italian restaurant outside of Italy) meant hitting the ground running: Ciavattella is in the kitchen 12-plus hours a day, six days a week. Because of his sparse downtime, he cherishes Mondays, his one day off and sole opportunity to explore the city. “I don’t have any favourite shops yet, but I love supporting small businesses. Recently, I tried a bunch of different local butchers—Gasparro’s was quite good—and went to Cheese Boutique for the first time.”

A priority has been scoping out the other Michelin-recognized spots in town. Recently, Ciavattella visited Osteria Giulia and Enigma, and he was impressed by the technique, quality and service at both restaurants. One thing he hasn’t been impressed by, though, is Toronto’s pizza. “It’s just not right! I mean, it might be right for Torontonians, but it’s not the same as pizza back home,” he says. “Via Mercanti is pretty close, though.”

Ciavattella and Staiano do the bulk of their shopping at the St. Lawrence Market and a hodgepodge of Annex greengrocers. For everything Italian, they hit up Yorkville’s Eataly, only a 17-minute walk from their house. Plus, being a Michelin chef comes with its perks—namely, knowing the city’s best importers. Should Eataly not carry exactly what Ciavattella is craving, he can probably get his fix of truffles, caviar or fresh mozzarella di bufala flown in straight from the boot.

Ciavattella holds three black truffles in his hand, and is bending over to smell them

Their fridge smacks of Italy. It’s stocked with black autumn truffles, Po Valley sturgeon caviar, Napoli peperoncino sausage, pecorino, asiago, Peroni, and tons of fresh produce and herbs. “It’s important to us that our kids not just eat vegetables but enjoy them,” says Ciavattella. For the most part, seven-year-old Marcello and five-year-old Astrid are easy-going omnivores. The only thing they aren’t too keen on are beets—apparently, the root vegetable isn’t popular back home.

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Ciavattella rifles though his fridge, which contains hefty amounts of meat and cheese

“We don’t really use the freezer,” says Ciavattella. He and Staiano shop in a very European style: small and frequent visits to stores, buying only what they need for the next few days. This rabbit, though, was a gift from a friend who hunts. He’s planning to make coniglio all’Ischitana with it—a southern Italian rabbit stew made with tomatoes, white wine and plenty of fresh Mediterranean herbs.

Vac-packed frozen rabbit meat, which the family was gifted

Ciavattella loves an organized pantry. Here, we have tons of raw nuts and legumes (traditional pasta with beans is a common weeknight dinner in this home). “I don’t have many guilty pleasures,” he says. “When I unwind, it’s basketball, a Peroni and a bowl of nuts.” Other pantry highlights include an impressive collection of imported olive oil–preserved antipasti (artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, cauliflower) and a big jar of Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio, a type of tomato that grows at the foot of the famed volcano. Ciavattella claims it makes some of the best tomato sauce.

Ciavattella keeps a very organized pantry, pictured here. The shelfs are lined with boxes of dried pasta and containers of nuts and legumes
Ciavattella's collection of tomato sauces and antipasta

There are a few items outside the responsible mix of legumes, beets, brassicas and leafy greens. Although Ciavattella doesn’t touch the chips (they’re for guests and other members of the family), he does have a sweet tooth. Sugary favourites include Mulino Bianco’s cocoa-and-cream biscotti and Ciobar’s thick hot chocolate. Although they have some Nutella, its not Ciavattella’s go-to Ferrero product—that would be Kinder Pinguí, but apparently the Italian chocolate maker refuses to sell it this side of the Atlantic.

The family's snack pantry, which includes a bag of Miss Vicky's chips and nutella

Back in Capri, Ciavattella and Staiano have a serious wine cellar stocked with more than 120 different labels. Here, they’re carrying a more concise (but still enviable) collection of bottles they acquired from a Toronto collector. There’s an evident proclivity for Super Tuscans (see: Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia Bolgheri, Marchesi Antinori Tignanello and Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore). “I’m not planning to drink any of these soon,” says Ciavattella. “They still need to age.”

The couple's wine collection, housed on slanting wooden shelves

This heavy-duty mixer is for making pizza dough, pasta, bread and waffle batter. “The kids love American-style breakfasts,” says Staiano. When their PA days line up with Ciavattella’s days off, the family always sits down for a big brunch. Usually it’s waffles, pancakes or eggs Benedict. It’s a nice change of pace for Ciavattella, who typically just has an espresso for breakfast on workdays. “At the restaurant, I eat all day. I’m trying a bite of this pasta, a spoonful of that risotto—it’s non-stop eating. So I don’t really eat at home unless it’s my day off.”

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A heavy duty white and silver table top mixer, pictured on a marble kitchen counter

And, of course, what Italian household would be complete without a stovetop espresso pot and a selection of good coffee? These beans were imported from Italy by Don Alfonso 1890; it’s the same roast they serve at the restaurant.

A black and silver stove top espresso maker flanked by a bag of beans from Don Alfonso and a stack of white espresso cups

“I don’t like recipe books,” says Ciavattella. “I prefer books that explain the philosophy of the restaurant.” This one, Massimo Bottura’s Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat 25 are his all-time favourite culinary reads. He decided to buy them in English in order to help improve his grasp on the language.

A dark red cookbook entitled Never Trust a Skinny Chef is on a wooden table, next to a few bottles of wine

Ciavattella and Staiano are saving this 30-year-old balsamic for a special occasion. They may finally crack it open at Christmas, when Staiano’s parents are coming to visit the family’s new home for the first time. Ciavattella has some gastronomic treats planned for their welcome, including a few tins of Calvisius caviar from the restaurant.

A 30-year-old balsamic in a short, squat bottle held by a bright orange case that reads "Mussini"
Ciavattella pulling a small tin of caviar out of his fridge

The couple haven’t had time to throw any dinner parties lately, but back in Capri, Ciavattella and Staiano are known as consummate hosts. When friends come to visit, they cross their fingers that Ciavattella will make either sea urchin spaghetti or lemon risotto with red prawns. According to his wife, everything Ciavattella makes is a home run. She may be slightly biased, though—after all, it was a plate of his signature risotto that wooed her nine years ago.

Ciavattella prepares some small appetizers on his kitchen counter, putting them in small glass bowls

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