Unrated during the pandemic
Longtime observers of the food scene might remember Donna as the headliner at Galileo, his first Washington restaurant, introduced in 1984 when the native of Italy’s Piedmont region was just 23, and later recast to include an intimate tasting room, the four-star Laboratorio del Galileo. The chef went on to open more than a dozen restaurants — among them I Matti, Il Raddicchio, Pesce, Arucola and Bebo Trattoria in Arlington — and also sully his reputation by not paying taxes and wages. Consequently, his places of employment in recent years, including Al Dente near American University, have been managed by someone other than Donna. Roberto’s is solely owned by his wife, Nancy Sabbagh, the smile and the “buona sera” behind the host desk.
“I want Roberto to do what Roberto does best,” says Sabbagh, who brings up “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette when questioned about Donna’s past business woes. “If I didn’t believe in him, I wouldn’t be doing this.” (Donna filed for bankruptcy in 2016. A lawsuit brought by former employees at Bebo was settled two years ago, with Donna paying “over six figures” over the life of the judgment, says the chef’s lawyer, Darrell W. Clark of Stinson LLP. As for unpaid sales taxes at Bebo, a monthly check is sent to Arlington County Circuit Court toward restitution, Clark adds.)
Donna, who hosted virtual dinners and wine events from the late Cesco Osteria in Bethesda during the pandemic, is as much glad-hander as chef in his new roost. “It feels good. It feels normal,” says Donna about being back at work and interacting with guests. Based on conversations with diners, he figures 75 percent of them were customers at Galileo, which shuttered in 2006 when the landlord gutted the entire building housing the dining destination.
A painting of a younger Donna — well, his torso in chef’s whites — hangs near the kitchen. “That was two sizes ago!” cracks the chef, now 61 and easily tagged by his colorful Alain Mikli eyewear. (Donna can make conversation about anything. When he sees a diner poking into a green salad made with shaved zucchini, toasted walnuts and Caesar-like dressing, he delivers a spoiler alert regarding an egg beneath the goodness: “Everyone puts theirs on the top!”)
A number of staff from Donna’s prior restaurants have followed him to Roberto’s, which makes for interesting Throwback Thursdays — Saturdays, too. Waiters I haven’t seen since George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office have reprised their roles here.
Dining at Roberto’s illustrates the beauty of Italian cuisine: Great ingredients don’t require much manipulation. Golden squash blossoms are stuffed with ricotta, lemon zest and mint, then fried and splayed on a chunky pea pesto — a lovely ode to spring. That icon of the Chesapeake Bay, rockfish glides to the table atop a white lake of potatoes ringed with an orange sauce that weighs in with fennel, garlic, white wine and tomato. Crimson slices of roasted venison are moistened with spoonfuls of a glossy reduction of barbaresco and balsamic vinegar (pass the bread, please) and positioned next to a many-layered wedge of butter-brushed potatoes, with not much more than a grill-wizened scallion as accent.
The chef reminds you he’s from the northwest corner of Italy with an order of gnocchi fonduta, a cheesy comfort enhanced with diced asparagus and crisp sails of fried prosciutto. Donna has an eye for decorating, too, evinced by the lacy web of fried squid ink hovering above a collection of sweet scallops gathered on pureed potatoes and fleshy black trumpet mushrooms. The nose identifies another indulgence in the mix: shaved winter truffles (gone as of this review, but not forgotten).
For the most part, Donna is cooking to the tune of the season rather than resurrecting a bunch of greatest hits, although he keeps a stash of agnolotti del plin in the freezer for fans who might request the stamp-size pasta stuffed with beef, pork and veal made famous at Galileo, where the dish was finished with a sage-and-Parmesan butter sauce. Roberto’s follows an Asian fusion restaurant, which left behind multiple woks when it closed. Donna says his friend and fellow longtime D.C. chef Kaz Okochi encouraged him to keep the fast cookers, which Donna uses to prepare pasta, including wavy ribbons of pappardelle, colored by carrots and tossed with chopped broccolini, tangy confit tomato and snowy bites of dorade.
It took a village — or rather, Sabbagh and various family members, foremost a sister who used to work at the Design Center — to conceive the look of the place, the walls of which display masks the owner bought on her honeymoon to Venice and fanciful, made-in-Murano glass “candies.” As for the whimsical Chihuly chandeliers, Sabbagh jokes they’re on “permanent loan” from her mother. A niece designed the restaurant’s logo and the plates evoking Miro arranged on the small fireplace, and a brother-in-law installed the lights and coat hooks. Fabric bought from Florence bind the cushions made by Sabbagh, and a roving cart becomes a talker when staff use it to carve a whole chicken or fillet a fish tableside.
Enlist Dimitri Papahajidis for any liquid assistance. A smart and sunny presence in the dining room, the general manager comes to Roberto’s from New York, where he worked as operations manager for the four-restaurant Civetta Hospitality. A bottle of nero d’avola from Sicily’s Gulfi winery — smelling of herbs and berries, bright in acidity thanks to the limestone soil from which the grapes were plucked — made a nice bridge for a recent meal of roasted branzino and duck breast.
Roberto’s isn’t Donna’s only work site. Weekdays, he spends his mornings in Rockville at ZeniMax Media, the video game publisher, which hired him before the pandemic to direct the menu at its cafe. There, Donna focuses on making specials. Every worker bee should be so lucky to have the option of rigatoni and shrimp whipped up by a maestro.
The chef’s night job is of greater interest to those of us who live to eat, and I’m here to report that Donna is following his boss’s orders: doing what he does best.
Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano
144 Church St. NW, Vienna, Va. 703-223-5336. robertosva.com. Open: Indoor dining 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $16 to $22, pasta and main courses $28 to $46. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff are all vaccinated and wear masks.