My life-long dream is finally realized. Laboratorio, my state-of-the-art cooking suite and private dining area, adjacent to the main dining room at Galileo, is in full swing. Here at seven tables, I can personally entertain thirty guests for dinner five nights a week. With the market's freshest and most intriguing products to fire our imagination each day, my staff and I will design a ten to twelve course tasting menu to titillate your palate. This ensures a spectacular dining experience, featuring some of my favorite contemporary Italian cuisine.

The thing I love best in Laboratorio is the cooking range and my array of multi-sized copper pots, fine china, and crystal. Within Laboratorio's glass walls my three assistants and I have great fun cooking bountiful dishes with only the finest components to create a stunning dinner just for you. The festivity begins with a glass of Prosecco and continues with one magnificent course after another to the grand finale, a scrumptious dessert created in Galileo tradition.

I look forward to the upcoming fall season in the Laboratorio as it is the best possible time of the year for me to create new recipes. All my favorite foods are available in the fall season-truffles, mushrooms, and game. In addition the best wines to complement these wonderful flavors are Piedmonts Barbera, Barolo, and Barbaresco. Just thinking about the combination of this food and wine gets my imagination stirring for the months ahead. It's going to be a busy and challenging fall at Galileo. We look forward to sharing this exciting time with old and new friends alike.

We are looking forward to seeing you at Laboratorio, please join us soon.

Buon Appetito!
Roberto Donna



Laboratorio del Galileo
1110 21ST, NW, WASHINGTON, DC 20036 Tel: (202) 331-0880
Fax: (202) 331-9364




August 15, 2001

In 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.

Ever 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.

He 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.

Three 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.

Unlike 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.

The 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."

He 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.

"That 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."

For those of us watching, it offered a glimpse into the realities of any kitchen (and added a frisson of excitement).

At 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.

After 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.

But after a decade of running 11 restaurants, Mr. Donna had had enough.

"Instead 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."

Robert 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."

The 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."

Mario 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.

The 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 invited.

Our 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.

Next 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.

We 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.

"I 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.

While 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.

While 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 occasion.

The 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."

The 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 varieties.

We 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 resist them.

Twelve courses later, we waddled out, with a first-hand understanding of the creativity, skill and tensions behind a great restaurant meal.



September 29, 2000

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Shallot Flan with Black Trumpet Cream Sauce

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Roasted Duck Liver with Red Wine Sauce

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Chickpea Soup with Vegetables and Chives

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Agnolotti of Veal and Spinach with Veal Sauce

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Black Ink Taglierini with Cuttlefish

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Risotto with Celery Root and Apples

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Filet of Dover Sole Stuffed with Caponata and Arucola Sauce

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Roasted Suckling Pig with Kabocha Squash Timbale and Black Truffle Sauce

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Cheese Trolley

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Fried Figs with Honey Ice Cream and Rum Sauce

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