It was, as Nadia Di Donato calls it, “The Michelin Mission.” For two years, the vice president and creative director of the acclaimed Liberty Entertainment Group and her husband, Nick, the group’s president and CEO, toured the globe in search of a high-end partnership with a Michelin-starred chef. The couple’s quest took them from Peru to Italy and it was there, in an elegant trattoria on the Amalfi Coast, that they found what they were looking for in Don Alfonso 1890 — a storied institution established by Chef Alfonso Iaccarino, now being run by his son, Ernesto. “We wanted to translate what we felt discovering Alfonso and Ernesto’s fresh, new cuisine and bring it to Toronto,” says Nadia. “It’s quite a departure from the rustic Italian food we are used to here.” Once the duo secured the historic Consumers’ Gas Building on Toronto Street as the venue, it was up to Nadia to create a dining space just as memorable as the food itself. Here, she speaks with Living Luxe about bringing the Amalfi Coast to Toronto — with a decidedly modern twist.
You’ve designed more than 20 restaurants in your career. Where do you begin when approaching a new concept?
My background is in graphic design, so each project is an art piece. I’m never just thinking about the interior itself — my approach starts with a clear vision of the food we’re serving and the experience we’re creating. I always have to ask and answer one important question: “How do I want the customer to feel?”
Dining out is theatrical and emotional. What’s the feeling you hoped to evoke at Don Alfonso 1890?
I want people to experience the entire restaurant in the first few minutes, so they can take in the kitchen, which is right in the middle of the restaurant, and appreciate the openness and airiness. I also included high-backed banquettes, which serve as dividers and allow people to be enveloped when they wish for privacy. There’s also an element of subtle luxury — I modelled the chairs after the Cartier “Love” bracelet — but most of all, the words I’d use to describe the mood of Don Alfonso 1890 are fresh, sophisticated, and significant.
Are you more concerned with the big picture or are you also involved in the details?
For me, design isn’t limited to the space itself: it extends through many layers from the furniture and tableware to the menu and wardrobe of our team. All of these elements combine to create the design magic we’re known for.
Were there challenges in working with a landmark building?
The classic shell of the Consumers’ Gas Building, which was built in 1852, gave me the opportunity to contrast its historical cornice mouldings and columns with modern additions, like the artwork, and the sleek five-by-ten porcelain sheets that resemble marble.
There are two large-scale artworks that really stand out: The Crane, a sculpture by Philippe Pasqua, and Woman Empowerment, a painting by Toronto artist Daniel Mazzone. Why did those two pieces feel like the right fit?
In this case, I spotted The Crane at Art Basel in Miami and it stopped me in my tracks. It was a bit controversial at first — I was proposing a six-by-four-foot skull for the middle of the restaurant, after all! — but now it’s the picture everyone wants to take. As for Daniel Mazzone’s painting, he and I talked about the motif of significant women through history; it felt timely and I wanted a striking, colourful focal point when you enter the restaurant’s white palette.
Why is art such an important feature in your designs?
Fine art is like an accent piece of jewellery and it’s my signature to include individually curated or commissioned art pieces. They reflect the personality of the space and add originality and intrigue.
Photography by Paula Wilson