Phyllis Richman / October 2003
Food Arts presents the October 2003 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Roberto Donna, whose Washington, D.C., restaurant Galileo two decades ago rose above the prevailing generic Northern Italian/Southern Italian formula to champion a true Italian regional cuisine. For Donna, it was the cooking of his native Piedmont, with its legendary raviolini del plin made with 42 egg yolks per kilogram of flour, its fame and truffles, and its hedonistic Nebbiolo-based wines. His insistance on serving dishes with and anchored, authentic voice helped alter the image of Italian food from oversauced fettuccine and the inevitable veal scallopine to the likes of carne cruda, polenta, risotto, fish baked in salt, and panna cotta. Donna's was the first major Italian restaurant in Washington owned by a chef, clearing the way for others to follow in its considerable wake.
As vic chairman of the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, a promotional consortium of U.S.-based Italian restaurants, Donna is looking beyond Piedmont to forge links between America and all of Italy's regional cuisines. For his mammoth efforts in and out of the kitchen, the exuberant Donna has become a magnet for accolades: James Beard Best Chef/Mid-Atlantic, Fine Dining Hall of Fame, Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington Chef of the Year, the American Culinary Federation Humanitarian Award, and more.
Donna, who once owned as many as 11 restaurants in the D.C. area, has cut back his portfolio to five, with four of those—Barolo (D.C.), Cesco (Bethesda, MD), and two Il Radicchio eateries (D.C. and Arlington, VA)—managed by their respective chefs. This has freed him to return to the kitchen, specifically, Laboratorio de Galileo (see "A cook's Dream," Food Arts, January/February 2002, page 76), a restaurant within Galileo where Donna cooks with Spontaneous glee five nights a week. In full view of its seven tables of diners, he prepares a dozen courses started from scratch after the day's marketing is completed. In his spare moments, he cures prosciutto, salami, and pancetta, puts up jams and sauces, and ripens cheeses in his own cave. What's more, he makes working hard look like fun.
Donna has always sought culinary challenges, from age 8, when he started working in restaurants in his hometown of Chivasso, near Turin, to 13, when he spent his allowance to buy a Pail Bocuse cookbook, to 19, when he became chef a Romeo and Juliet, then one of Washington's more prominent Italian restaurants. By 1984 he was running his own place.
Now Donna is busy building a community of D.C. restauranteurs called Chefs About Nothing. Its members, representing cuisines from Japan to Belgium, get together monthly to talk about—and consume—food, go fishing, and travel (so far, to Italy and Spain). They provide mutual support, handing out one another's business cards to their diners. They're taking their show on the road next month with a dinner at the James Beard House (NYC), prepared by 19 of them. For Donna, the party continues.