Editors' pick

Al Dente

$$$$ ($15-$24)
Roberto Donna leads the kitchen at this modern restaurant from local fast food mogul Hakan Ilhan.
Monday-Friday 11:30 am-5 pm.; dinner Sunday through Thursday
5-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5-11 pm; brunch Saturday-Sunday. 11:30 am-4 pm.
(NW Washington)
77 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)

Editorial Review

Editor's note: Al Dente changed its name from La Forchetta in August 2012, after the review was published.

A chef with a past gets a fresh start
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 17, 2012

La Forchetta near American University is a far cry from the last restaurant that featured Roberto Donna, the Italian chef’s short-lived Galileo III downtown.

That’s not a negative. Washington doesn’t need another pricey pasta house, but it can always make room for a moderately priced neighborhood retreat -- and when it comes to filling stations, this part of the city doesn’t stock many.

Galileo III was about fancy tasting menus and understated design; La Forchetta, which opened with a $15 express lunch in April, rouses the senses with tangerine-colored chairs, a black-and-white-tiled pizza oven, an enlarged image of Mona Lisa on one wall and welcome transparency (more on that later).

Forchetta (say fork-etta) is Italian for “fork,” and the one in your hand at the restaurant is apt to stay in motion as you return for more of the mortadella spread or salt cod. They’re two of the many cicchetti, or small plates, that open the menu. That pink meat spread picks up flavor from ground pistachios and balsamic vinegar; the cool shredded cod is ringed in a shimmering herbed olive oil. Both are best eaten with the two breads the kitchen bakes each day.

Pork belly, sliced into crisp dominos and neatly arranged on a row of buttery diced apples, is listed as an appetizer but qualifies as a decadent dinner. And if zucchini blossoms are offered, go for the golden fried blimps that break open to a white rush of ricotta, lemon and mint. Rough chunks of carrot, bell pepper and more are tossed in tomato, vinegar and sugar and sold as sweet-and-sour pickles representative of Donna’s native Piedmont. I need a bigger table to accommodate every snack I want to try, including Donna’s homey beef-and-pork meatballs, dusted with Parmesan and served in a tangy tomato sauce.

Not every little dish seduces. Shrimp poised over fine-grained polenta with lemon slices is lots of soft textures. It’s pleasant enough.

That’s true of much of the rest of the menu, or at least what I encountered on my initial visits to La Forchetta. Whole grilled branzino simply dressed with green salsa is fine, but not so special I want to flip the fish over and continue eating its snowy insides. A plump veal chop is nice, but I’m more interested in eating its green base of roasted asparagus crusted with Parmesan. A ruler-size skewer threaded with pork sausage, croutons, bell pepper chunks, potato and way too much rosemary and sage is a good way for the kitchen to use up leftovers but not a well-edited main course.

The concrete counter framing the oak-stoked pizza oven is a diverting place to sit, if not to indulge in the pies themselves. I keep trying them at La Forchetta, and I keep leaving slices behind, initially because of the inconsistency and, more recently, the timid crust.

However, Donna’s pastas turn up mostly winners (and turn on smiles). Silken gnocchi practically melt on the tongue; garden-bright basil and a dusting of cheese make them a good choice for the vegetarian at the table. My pick is the generous bowl of calamarata pasta, floppy ivory-colored bands interspersed with a sea of squid, shrimp and tiny mussels in a light but tangy wash of tomato and shrimp stock. There wasn’t a bite of that dish I didn’t like, although it could easily have fed a small family. Cavatelli with crumbled pork sausage, asparagus, garlic and white wine registers better on paper than in the mouth. The meat was ground too fine, and the cherry tomatoes sported tough skins -- in all, not much flavor.

Donna’s outsize but elegant tiramisu was my favorite segue to the check until I tasted his zuppa inglese: rum-infused sponge cake layered with chocolate pastry cream and garnished with boozy cherries.

Most significantly these days, Donna is just the talent rather than the till master, too. Galileo III represented the veteran chef’s undoing as story after story focused more on his tax and labor woes than on his cooking, for which the now-51-year-old won a regional award from the James Beard Foundation in 1996. La Forchetta was conceived by Hakan Ilhan, the owner of, among 22 other food venues, the local Pizza Autentica chain.

The principals prop each other up. One cooks; the other pays the bills: Everybody’s better for the arrangement.

Longtime local restaurant-goers are likely to recognize the dining room handlers, including general manager Karen Shannon, the owner of the late Petitto’s in Woodley Park and the hostess with the broad smile at countless other Italian restaurants since then. She has an easy way with customers, many of whom were regulars at Donna’s succession of Galileo-branded restaurants.

The chef is best known for his refined cooking. Does he miss his white truffle days? “Anytime I can cook Italian food,” he says, “I’m happy.”

That makes at least two of us.