I've been a fan of Donatella Arpaia's cooking since having dined at her flagship, Mia Dona, in the winter of 2009. However, the restaurant's Midtown East location has hindered me from returning, as I typically spend my evenings downtown.
Recently, I was thrilled to learn that Ms. Arpaia had opened a pizza-heavy Italian restaurant in the heart of my Chelsea neighborhood. So last night, Megan and I decided to meet for an early dinner at Donatella.
Upon my arrival, I was instantly struck by the genuine warmth of the hostess. "We have a great table in the back. It faces the pizza oven, so you'll definitely be warmer," she said. This was an incredibly insightful - yet unwarranted - offer, as I was visibly (read: uncontrollably) shivering from the evening's bone-chilling weather. "Whew," I exclaimed via my numbed mouth, "that would be fantastic!" As she led me to a two-top in the back of the restaurant, I was slightly in awe of the ample surroundings. The dining room was shaped in like a perfect capital letter "L." Exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, elegant copper ceiling tiles, and just the perfect amount of overhead lighting breathed an air of sophisticated rusticity and warmth in to the space.
As we neared our table, I was struck by shimmering gold dome that glistened under the overhead lights. The name "Donatella" was prominently centered above the mouth of the wood-burning pizza oven, which was entirely adorned with shiny gold tiles. I smiled and mumbled, What a bad ass! To me, this symbolized Ms. Arpaia's reign on the heavy, male-dominated Italian chef/kitchen.
And to that, I say, you go girl!
Megan arrived merely seconds after I was seated. Our server quickly approached, handing us food and beverage menus. The cocktail list looked incredible - I was particularly taken by the description of the Fig Mojito, which Megan later ordered. I chose to whet my palate with a slender champagne flute filled with sparkling red wine.
Megan and I came to the mutual agreement that we could not come to a restaurant with an in-house, wood-burning pizza oven and not order pizza. So we chose to split a margherita pie and each order our own appetizer, as Meg doesn't eat meat. "Whatever you do," our server said, "make sure to save room for dessert. We have an incredibly talented pastry chef."
I was immediately drawn to the "polpette di vitello," braised veal meatballs, which I had the pleasure of enjoying nearly two years prior at Mia Dona. Perhaps it was the fact that I had not eaten Ms. Arpaia's version in quite some time, but this particular order of meatballs was even better than what I had remembered. Four golf ball-sized spheres of tomato-braised veal were liberally crowned with melted parmesan cheese and slivers of Italian parsley, both enveloped by and served atop a shallow pool of tangy marinara sauce.
The meat, itself, was incredible - it was finely ground, leaving a smooth, almost velvet-like textural composition. Each 'ball was held together by a buttery, seared crust, giving way to a superbly moist and delicate interior.
I made sure to set aside two of the meatballs to accompany my pizza.
There's nothing I love more than a really well made Neapolitan-style pizza. Donatella's version was exactly that: the pie was cooked in the restaurant's 700-degree wood burning oven, which gave the dough a soft middle and crisp, charred ends. I appreciated that the kitchen had taken the liberty of finishing our pizza with a light sprinkle of sea salt, which added the optimal extraction of flavor from each of its simple ingredients. This was, truly, the perfect pie.
I cut my two remaining meatballs in to fourths and placed them atop each pizza slice, uniting crust to bottom point, then eating each slice like a meatball-stuffed burrito.
Since our server had previously coerced us in to ordering dessert, Megan and I perused the heavenly menu. We chose to split the "Torta Pazzo," which read to be an Italian twist on traditional chocolate cake and ice cream.
While the plate looked gorgeous and the "Torta" incredibly delectable, I wasn't as positively blown away by the dessert as I had assumed that I'd be, per the server's insistence. The cake was layered with ribbons of both milk and bittersweet chocolate mousse, and was accompanied by schmear of hazelnut praline crumble and a scoop of hazelnut gelato. I wondered if it was just me who didn't think that the cake was life changing, but Megan felt the same.
Conclusion: I am beyond thrilled to have Donatella, a destination-worthy restaurant, in my neighborhood! From the service, atmosphere, affordable prices, and incredible food and drink, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself dining there at least once/month.