When the news broke that one of Washington's most famous chefs had returned to the kitchen, foodies applauded: Roberto Donna, of the Galileo and Bebo Trattoria fame, was back behind the stove. But this time, he is shaping his pastas in a small, contemporary restaurant on New Mexico Avenue. As executive chef at la Forchetta, Donna has full reign over an all-Italian menu that reflects his creativity and Italian heritage.
Donna has spent his entire life cooking -- it's both a passion and an obsession. "I grew up in a two-family house," he said. "My family owned a grocery store, and sold all the ingredients [to] the restaurant next door, so I would go into the restaurant and play with the chefs. That was the beginning of my passion for cooking."
He started picking through salad greens for restaurant chefs at the age of 4. A year later, he was tasked with peeling potatoes and learned how to make simple pastas. For this Torino, Italy, native, that's a major achievement. When he turned 8, Donna could already assemble a meal, and when he turned 15, he enrolled in culinary school.
|If you go|
|» Where: 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW, Suite E|
|» Info: 202-244-2223; laforchettadc.com|
|» Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday|
As a young man Donna moved to D.C., where he found Italian restaurants using American chefs who were unfamiliar with the hidden beauty of true Italian cuisine. So when Donna started cooking, the local food world paid attention: They were enjoying authentic Italian flavors and textures. He recalls being the first Italian to serve risotto and grilled rack of veal in a D.C. restaurant.
Several decades later, and after a several-year hiatus, Donna returns to the kitchen, where he has free rein to structure the menu. "The owner said, 'What you are doing, you do well,' " Donna said. " 'You know food, you know what people want.' " Donna said that the owner wanted the best pizza in the city served with good Italian food.
Describing the restaurant as a trattoria, Donna said the dishes are slightly different than at his earlier, more formal destinations. "I use different cuts of meat," he said. "Some of the dishes are like those at Galileo, but I just change some of the ingredients. For example, at Galileo, I made a Parmesan cheese pudding, and I make one here. But I do not use black truffles and fried shallots."
Donna said he really likes the style of food he is cooking. "When I go back to Torino, this is what my friends and I eat."
What's your comfort food?
Pasta. Lasagna and cold cuts with good, crunchy bread.
What's in your fridge?
Milk, eggs, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, garlic and olive oil.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
Vidalia, Citronelle, R.J. Cooper's Rogue24, Kaz Sushi Bistro.
What are you must-have ingredients?
Olive oil, garlic vinegar, tomato sauce, flour, eggs, anchovies and fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme and basil.
What is your signature dish?
Risotto with white truffles.
Polpette di pane
1 pound old dried bread
Milk to cover
2 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
3 whole eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
2 cups tomato sauce
Soak the bread in milk to cover. Drain and squeeze out all the milk; place the bread in the mixing bowl. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, salt and pepper. Mix well, wet hands with water, and form the mixture into balls the size of apricots. Heat oil in a skillet, and fry the balls until golden all over. Meanwhile, heat the tomato sauce in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Place the balls into the tomato sauce, and cook for 10 minutes. Serve hot.