Interview with Chef Roberto Donna of Il Radicchio -- Washington, DC

March 1997

Tina Fiore: What made you fall in love with food and cooking? When did you know it would be a lifelong passion?
Roberto 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.

TF: At 19 years old, you arrived in Washington D.C., what were your initial goals as you headed off to the States? Why Washington?
RD: 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.

TF: You opened Galileo just 4 years after setting foot in a new country. What was your best and worst experience during this period?
RD: 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.

TF: What would your advice be to aspiring chef/restaurateurs, especially to food professionals coming from Europe hoping to make it in the States?
RD: 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.

TF: Tell us about Laboratorio del Galileo. Describe the typical preparations you go through when planning a 10-12 course tasting menu.
RD: 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.

TF: You are constantly experimenting with new ingredients, any recent creations you could share with us?
RD: 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.

TF: What are some of your favorite ingredients, which are always in your pantry?
RD: Salt, flour, rice, olive oil, wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar.

TF: Do you have specific purveyors you have dealt with consistently over the years? Which ones and why?
RD: 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.

TF: How has the perception of Italian cuisine changed since you first started in the business?
RD: 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.

TF: Can you give our users some tips on how to cook the perfect plate of pasta? What is your favorite sauce?
RD: 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.

TF: Your wine cellar has repeatedly won the Grand Award of Excellence. Do you choose the wines yourself? Which regions are they from predominantly?
RD: 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!

TF: 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?
RD: 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.

The 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.

TF: 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?
RD: 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 the restaurant!

TF: You are involved in many different organizations for the promotion of Italian food and culture in the States. Tell us about a few of them.
RD: 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.

TF: Have you participated in any Slow Food events?
RD: 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.

TF: How often do you return to Italy? Any plans of opening a restaurant in Europe?
RD: 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!!

TF: What are your plans for the future?
RD: To do what I like, and cook in Laboratorio.