This Lab, White Coats and Truffles
By Marian Burros
WASHINGTON -- IN a city where culinary innovation is not
part of the local lexicon, Il Laboratorio del Galileo is
causing a sensation. As much of a sensation here as anything
that does not involve sex and politics.
since Roberto Donna expanded his popular 17-year-old Washington
restaurant, Galileo, top chefs have made tracks to his door.
The lure? Mr. Donna's "laboratory": a glass-walled
restaurant within the restaurant where he experiments in
front of a small group of diners, eager guinea pigs who
eat, drink, watch and kibitz.
has transcended the table-in-the-kitchen concept, creating
an interactive experience more like performance art. Ferran
Adria of the Michelin three-star restaurant El Bulli in
Spain has come for dinner, and chefs from around the country
are coming to cook with Mr. Donna. It can take two months
to get a reservation at the laboratory.
to five nights a week, in front of 25 to 30 people, Mr.
Donna cooks as he pleases, adding French, Asian and American
accents to his Piedmontese food. With a crew of three he
prepares the meal that was planned at noon that day, subject
to last-minute improvisation. Diners are not required to
watch his magic from the respectful distance mandated in
most table- in-the-kitchen arrangements; Mr. Donna wants
them to hang out at the counter, peek into the pots, ask
questions, make jokes, share wine. And they do.
other restaurants where the menu is the same at the kitchen
table as it is in the dining room, Laboratorio offers food
that for the most part is different from what the 200 to
300 diners outside the glass walls are being served. You
can't stuff zucchini blossoms with risotto for 300, Mr.
Donna explained, but you can for 30.
meal depends entirely on what the local farm markets have
to offer that morning and what the chef imagines as he strolls
through the stalls. "When you cook you have to go with
the food," Mr. Donna said. "Even when the guests
are there I may adjust the dishes. It depends on the food.
Nothing is ever written down because if I did we'd start
to do everything the same."
doesn't mind if the customers see a few pyrotechnics. Mr.
Donna smiles most of the time but when things get tense
his fiery side emerges. During our dinner he was under a
kind of stress peculiar to Washington: Vice President Dick
Cheney was eating in a private dining room and Mr. Donna
had to cook special low-fat food for him.
night I had eight different menus going," Mr. Donna
said later, "and the cooks were a little bit lost and
I was screaming and yelling."
those of us watching, it offered a glimpse into the realities
of any kitchen (and added a frisson of excitement).
40, after spending years building his business, Mr. Donna
said his restaurant within a restaurant fulfilled the dream
of returning to his first love, cooking. By the time he
was 4 1/2, he said, his career was set: He spent his free
time playing in the restaurant next to his parents' grocery
store outside Turin.
culinary school at 13 and brief stops in England and Switzerland,
he moved to Washington at 19 to work as a sous-chef in an
Italian restaurant. In 1984 he opened Galileo, now at 1110
21st Street NW, between L and M Streets, and quickly turned
it into a must-go place for Italian food.
after a decade of running 11 restaurants, Mr. Donna had
of cooking I was always dealing with problems," he
said. "I felt like I was a lawyer. I could have gone
back into the Galileo kitchen but I am not able to serve
200 or 300 people all by myself. I wanted to serve my food
and wanted that everybody leave happy. At Laboratorio I
can see everyone and if someone I watch moves his mouth
the wrong way, I can cook them something else."
Wiedmaier, chef and owner of Marcel's in Washington, said:
"Only a few restaurateurs and chefs can pull that off.
Most chefs don't even want to come out of the kitchen. You
have to have the right personality."
idea of cooking for just a few appeals to Todd English,
who owns Olives in Boston and Washington and several other
restaurants. "It's a pretty cool concept," he
said. "I often tell people, when I'm through expanding,
I am going to have a counter restaurant with six stools
in front of me and just call it `Me,' and open a couple
of nights a week."
Batali of Babbo in New York, Giuliano Bugialli, the cookbook
author and cooking teacher, and Celestino Drago from Drago
in Santa Monica, Calif., have already joined Mr. Donna at
the Laboratorio stove.
elegant room with ocher walls, mottled gray tile floor and
30 damask-covered chairs has a state of the art kitchen
including a tiny dishwasher for the special Ginori china
and Reidel stemware. The four-hour, or longer, 12-course
dinner is $98 ($110 on Friday and Saturday). If you'd like
wines matched to the food, that's another $60. The evening
is like having a favorite chef come to your kitchen and
cook for you and your friends while the neighbors press
their noses against the window and wonder why they weren't
dinner featured a salad of figs stuffed with duck liver
in a fig sauce. He had to make it three times during service,
adjusting the heat in the oven from 290 to 320 and finally
to 340 so that the figs would not be overcooked but the
foie gras would be perfectly done.
came pea soup with onion timbale and bay scallops that were
supposed to have been sautéed. But when Mr. Donna
tried to sauté them, they did not form a crisp crust.
"They had too much juice in them," he said. So
he improvised, putting them in a covered pan with butter,
shallots and truffles and letting them steam in their juices.
watched as a huge chunk of butter was stirred into a risotto
sprinkled liberally with Parmigiano and toma cheeses. It
took three people to stuff zucchini flowers for 30. Then
Mr. Donna turned his attention to the risotto he was making
for the vice president.
had to think of a way to make it rich without the butter
and cheese," he said. "So I puréed some
peas and mixed them with the cooked rice." Curious,
I asked for a sample. Nice, but it's better with butter.
the vice president always gets an extra measure of attention,
Mr. Donna is equally solicitous of the people in his laboratory.
When reservations are made, each diner is asked to list
whims, allergies and religious preferences. That night,
in addition to Mr. Cheney's food, there were three kosher
orders, one no fat, one no shellfish and one no red meat.
most of the diners stick to their stated requirements, some
are not so steadfast. "Thirty to 40 percent of the
time people who say `no meat' change their minds when they
get here, so we have to scramble to get another red meat
order," Mr. Donna said. That night was just such an
cooks, unaware of the changes until they were in progress,
frequently crowded around the chef. "They always hover
when I am doing something different," Mr. Donna said.
"That way, if I change it from what I said at 12 o'clock
they will learn why."
seventh course, risotto, was followed by butter-poached
lobster with cauliflower purée and fennel broth.
Eventually the cheese trolley appeared, the selection each
evening chosen from Galileo's cave, which holds 20 to 30
soldiered bravely on to dessert, including cherries in Barbera
and a fennel tart with star anise ice cream. For the final
snack, Mr. Donna always serves bombolini, donut holes just
lifted from the deep fryer, because, he said, no one can
courses later, we waddled out, with a first-hand understanding
of the creativity, skill and tensions behind a great restaurant