The Roaming Empire Chef Roberto Donna returns to D.C., but will Italian upstarts give him the boot?

Potenza to the Throne: Ciociola and Moscatello
Darrow Montgomery

When Roberto Donna shut down Galileo in 2006 and moved his crew across the river to Crystal City, everyone in the District assumed the estrangement would be temporary. The chef himself assured us that Bebo Trattoria was essentially a make-busy operation—maybe permanent, maybe not—until renovations to the office building on 21st Street NW were complete and he could reopen his next-generation Galileo in a modern space that befits a man of his stature and ambition.

One news report even suggested that Galileo’s rebirth could arrive as soon as late 2007. But the year passed with barely a peep from Donna, and Washingtonians had to scramble to find an Italian outlet downtown that could fill the sizable void. Ristorante Tosca and Spezie were logical choices, a pair of often-solid performers that might satisfy a craving for regional Italian fare but could never hope to capture the power-broker brio and rudderless bravado that, in part, define Roberto Donna. Not even a trip to Peter Pastan’s Obelisk off Dupont Circle could recreate the reckless rollercoaster thrills, and sometimes chills, of Galileo.

But now, three years after Donna shuttered Galileo, there’s tons of press trumpeting the chef’s triumphant return to the District. Galileo, however, won’t enjoy a second life in the same space; instead, Donna will reopen Galileo in the former Butterfield 9 location at 600 14th St. NW. A retail leasing agent with knowledge of the deal recently assured me that Galileo will indeed take root in the space, even though the originally announced opening day of “April or May” is now ancient history.

Donna, however, returns to the District with heavy baggage, a weight compounded by the fact that he will now face a lot more competition for the downtown Italian dining dollar. Within the past year, three Italian restaurants have set up shop, two downtown (Siroc and Potenza) and one on the outskirts near Logan Circle (Ristorante Posto). A fourth, Ashok Bajaj’s Bibiana Osteria, is expected to launch with a “soft” opening at 1100 New York Ave. NW on Sept. 7.

These new operations will face off against a diminished Donna. The celebrity chef’s Bebo Trattoria, with its well-documented history of poor service and inconsistent food, left a bad taste in many diners’ mouths. The restaurant didn’t fare too well with some of its employees, either. Last year, three of them filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claiming that Donna’s companies, tied to both Bebo and Galileo, failed to “pay any and all wages during multiple pay periods,” failed “to pay the required minimum wage,” and failed to “calculate and pay time-and-a-half for overtime work.” The lawsuit is still pending.

The question, though, is this: Is a diminished Donna still stronger than the newcomers who would love to assume Galileo’s once rightful place as the go-to Italian restaurant within the city’s main corridors of power? That’s the question I wanted to answer as we all wait and see when—and how well—Roberto Donna re-emerges in the District.

I suspect Bibiana, under the direction of former Maestro cook Nicholas Stefanelli, will be a serious contender once it gets up and running, but of the current players, only Siroc on McPherson Square has the chops to give Donna any pause. Which is only fitting. Siroc’s chef, Martin Lackovic, spent many years in Donna’s employ, first as executive chef of I Matti Trattoria in Adams Morgan and later as executive chef of the very mother ship, Galileo.

Lackovic’s menu, at once steeped in tradition and cautiously creative, strikes me as the kind of document that comes only from a mind deeply invested in Italian cuisine. His delicious starter of tomato gnocchi with roasted lobster and truffled cauliflower sauce is a classic example: It simultaneously honors and tweaks traditional Italian ingredients and preparations. With his black pepper-seared pork tenderloin, Lackovic also tips his hat to the Americas, which, given the transatlantic history of the tomato, is very Italian; the meat comes served with a demi-glace infused with that distinctly North American fruit, the blueberry.

As you might expect, these subtle challenges to tradition don’t always succeed, and I’d point right to that pork entrée, these slightly overcooked rings of loin meat that would have benefited from less heat and more blueberries. Many of Lackovic’s other dishes, though, won’t allow you to dwell on any mistakes. The chef’s simple preparation of roasted whole branzino, served with capers and lemon oil, is a textbook example of the direct, fresh, and clean flavors of Italian cooking, while his spinach pappardelle with crushed tomatoes, shrimp, pancetta, and roasted artichokes offers up so many riches that I stopped trying to count them.

I wish I could say the same thing about the pastas I tried at Potenza inside the Woodward Building, which is the latest project from Stir Food Group, the same folks behind Zola and the new Spy Diner street cart. I found chef Bryan Moscatello’s tortelloni stuffed with rabbit and truffles dense and gummy. Even stranger, I found his orecchiette accompanied by a mystery meat not found on the menu description; this chewy stranger was not a welcome guest.

Still, there are pleasures to be found at Potenza, though you may have to wade through the deceptively crowded menu to find them. The salumi, including the supple and flavorful house-cured bresaola, could easily assume the role of an antipasti course. So could Stefano Ciociola’s pizzas, I guess, but only if you really love to pile on the carbs. The Neapolitan native’s long oval-shaped pies boast thin, crisp, and chewy (occasionally too chewy) crusts, which, when fully baked, almost defy the laws of gravity; there’s nary a bend to your slice, even at the very tip. Fact is, you might even order these pies as an entree, but if not, I’d suggest Moscatello’s veal scallopini, a generous plate of savory cutlets served with polenta, prosciutto, and some much-needed spinach, which provides a grace note of bitterness to cut through all the rich flavors.

Posto assumes the commoner role in my current hierarchy of D.C. Italian dining nobility. Try as I might, I’m still looking for that one dish that I can endorse without reservation at this 14th Street NW spot, launched last year by the same team responsible for Ristorante Tosca. I’ve tried chef de cuisine Matteo Venini’s pizzas, pasta, soups, and entrees, and they’ve all been serviceable, if not exciting. His Margherita pie is ultra thin, sporting a healthy char from the wood-burning oven, but its sauce is too sweet and its crust too airy for my tastes. Sweetness also dominates his housemade tagliatelle with goat ragu and sunchokes, while his “baby chicken” entrée is exactly that: three bites of overly seasoned meat that can be either dry or gamey depending on which piece you get. This is not the stuff that will make Donna quake in fear on his return to the District.

 

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Our Readers Say

SIROC

This new neighborhood gem continues to impress.....each time I visit (5 times now) I have been amazed by the quality and attention to details. You will be hard pressed to find a better Italian dining experience anywhere. My hats off to the chef and staff for making this stop a consistant winner. The helpfulness of the wait staff, especially in wines, makes the meal a pleasure that both satisfies and enhances the experience! Paul J.
It is to many restaurant this day's have any body try McCormick's and Smicks at 9 and F street, the lunch menu is very afforable and the food very consistence, a lot of choices and food taste fresh dinner menu very apetite and healty choices.
Exellent hapy hour a burger for 2,95 this day's we need places like this in washington dc.

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