What made you fall in love with food and cooking? When did you
know it would be a lifelong passion?
Donna: My family ran a grocery store that was next to a restaurant.
I spent all of my free time in the kitchen of the restaurant helping
the chef - peeling potatoes, cleaning vegetables, and gradually
learning to cook. Additionally, my grandfather was a vegetable
farmer so I also spent a lot of time with him on the fields learning
about beautiful fresh vegetables: food was our family "culture",
and of course, the culture of Italy. There was not even a question
that food would be a lifelong passion, it was just a natural thing
- all I knew, and liked.
At 19 years old, you arrived in Washington D.C., what were your
initial goals as you headed off to the States? Why Washington?
I came to Washington D.C. because the teacher of my cooking school
in Torino, Mario Sobio, had a request to send students to DC for
a restaurant called Romeo & Juliet. Out of curiosity, I came
with plans to spend one year and see what the United States was
all about. Mario Sobio now sends me students for my restaurants.
You opened Galileo just
4 years after setting foot in a new country. What was your best
and worst experience during this period?
My worst experience when I first arrived was to see what kind
of Italian food was being served in the US. My best experience
was to see that Americans liked my food.
What would your advice be to aspiring chef/restaurateurs, especially
to food professionals coming from Europe hoping to make it in
To all aspiring chefs and restaurateurs: America is still America.
The public is more worldly and well traveled than 20 years ago.
Don't underestimate the American palate. And, lastly, it takes
a lot of hard work - there are no shortcuts in this business.
Tell us about Laboratorio
del Galileo. Describe the typical preparations you go through
when planning a 10-12 course tasting menu.
I renovated Galileo two years ago and built my showcase kitchen,
Laboratorio del Galileo. It is a kitchen that I built to cook
in (myself) 4-5 days a week and work at perfecting my version
of Italian cuisine. I have 3 assistants and we meet daily at 12:00pm
to see what we did the day before, what is freshest, what is new
that the farmers have sent or that we've gotten when we went to
the market. We then plan the day's menu and between 12-6 we prep
the meal for the 30 customers we serve. The meal is 10-12 small
tasting courses, and the meal is meant for dining, as we enjoy
dining in Italy - without a rush, without a menu - as the chef
feels like cooking. Our customers are enjoying the experience
and the feedback has been excellent. On July 7, 2001, we celebrated
Laboratorio del Galileo's second anniversary: 360 nights of cooking
and 7,780 diners
I am excited.
You are constantly experimenting with new ingredients, any recent
creations you could share with us?
No, because Laboratorio is not a Laboratorio at the expense of
the customer. It is a kitchen working to perfect the food of our
country known for centuries. Italy and the food and ingredients
we use go back to B.C. There is NO fusion, nor trendy combinations
or ingredients in my food... My cuisine - the food, Galileo -
is not trendy or frou frou. We don't sell good looking food, but
tasty food using good basic ingredients.
What are some of your favorite ingredients, which are always in
Salt, flour, rice, olive oil, wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar.
Do you have specific purveyors you have dealt with consistently
over the years? Which ones and why?
Tuscarora Farms: A farmer's cooperative with the very best vegetables
and fruits. These and other farmers that care are the people allowing
me to bring better dishes to my customers' tables.
How has the perception of Italian cuisine changed since you first
started in the business?
Very little. In major cities like New York and DC, you can begin
to see change, but what the national Italian chains are serving
and succeeding with still shows me how the American public views
Italian cuisine and what they are still accustomed to.
Can you give our users some tips on how to cook the perfect plate
of pasta? What is your favorite sauce?
Cook pasta in a lot of boiling salted water - there is never enough
water. My favorite sauce is a simple combination of butter, sage
and veal juice.
Your wine cellar has repeatedly won the Grand Award of Excellence.
Do you choose the wines yourself? Which regions are they from
I choose the wine list with the assistance of Michael Nayeri.
Italy is still the main focus of my list, with the Piedmont region
being predominant - my native roots. There is nothing better than
our Barbarescos and Barolos!
What are some of the ways you build your staff? Do you have a
core staff that has remained with you from the beginning? What
type of incentives do you offer your staff?
I have a small core group of managers from the early days, but
this is a business where people move around. Some floor people
have also stayed by my side and I am grateful. The kitchen is
the hardest area when it comes to longevity: my talented Executive
Chefs have basically all left to go on to open their own restaurants:
one of them, Enzo Fargione, became my business partner in three
of my operations. Others I try to support, mentor, and wish well.
biggest incentive I think I offer my staff is the end product,
and being around a competitive environment, which strives to produce
the very best. For some it is a motivator, for some it is an opportunity
to learn. For others, our success represents financial rewards.
You have your own Web site, in what other ways have you used the
Internet or other types of software? How do you feel the technological
revolution is affecting the restaurant business?
We use a computer to run our business today. The main operating
system, Comus, keeps data, reports, and sends orders into the
kitchen, and while I have had software to take reservations for
years, I adore the OpenTable.com system recently installed in
You are involved in many different organizations for the promotion
of Italian food and culture in the States. Tell us about a few
My primary avenue for promoting Italian cuisine in the United
States is through GRI [Gruppo Ristoritori Italiani] where I am
the Chairman. Educating the American public and palate are a couple
of my key missions and it is where I concentrate all of my efforts.
Founded by Tony May, GRI represents over 200 restaurants across
the country - our mission is to promote and educate the public
about authentic Italian cuisine. The key word is authentic.
Have you participated in any Slow Food events?
I attended the Slow Food conference in Torino the past two years
and will return this year. I have not, however, participated in
any events in the U.S. - I do not believe that slow food is developed
enough or prepared yet to come into the U.S.
How often do you return to Italy? Any plans of opening a restaurant
I go to Italy about 6 times every year: for business, to see my
family, and always to keep my palate alive! Opening a restaurant
in Europe? NO!! I'm not crazy!!
What are your plans for the future?
To do what I like, and cook in Laboratorio.
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