What to Make of Bebo’s Closing and Donna’s Future?
Can we take a forensic pathologist's approach to the death of Bebo and draw any conclusions? Probably not, since we can only examine the patient from a distance, but the trattoria, born in late 2006, didn't even live to see its third birthday. If this were just another restaurant, you might not think twice about its brief existence, particularly in this economy. But Bebo was the product of Donna, one of the most influential (and talented) chefs who has ever worked in this area.
In the beginning, Bebo was delivering, more or less, on its promise to deliver simple, fresh pastas, even if the cavernous space, formerly the home of THINKfoodGROUP's Oyamel, seemed too soaring and too grand for a humble trattoria. At the same time, Bebo had problems from the start, some of which were out of Donna's control.
It took months, for instance, for Donna and his hired expediter to untangle the Arlington County red tape and get the necessary permits to install a wood-burning oven from Naples. Donna couldn't seem to control the glacial movements of either the government or his own wait staff. From Day 1, the service at the trattoria was flawed. I still remember my first meal at Bebo: Six of us sat around waiting on our waiter to bring us something, anything—wine, water, maybe even our dinners.
Donna would eventually solve the county permitting issues. He could never, for some reason, get a grip on his service problems. If you have no life — and with this economy, that's a possibility — you can read through the hundreds of comments about Bebo on DonRockwell.com; the common theme is shitty service.
But here's the thing: If you talk to any chef in town, they will tell you they've had some great meals at Bebo. One toque even told me, flat-out, that when Donna was playing pizzaiolo at Bebo, the pizza was the best in town, bar none. (Personally, I would not go that far, but I did taste some of Donna's pies that made me drool in anticipation for the next one, which would ultimately disappoint.) I absolutely believe their dinner stories. I believe them for one reason: When Donna cares, when he's really engaged and at the helm, he can still cook like a young man with something to prove.
That's the thing, though. Donna wasn't always around. He had installed the gracious, competent, and sometimes inspired Claudio Sandri as chef at Bebo, presumably so Donna could work on reopening a Galileo-like restaurant in D.C. But Donna's absences served as a sort of metaphor: No one seemed to be minding the store.
A restaurateur recently made the most trenchant remark about Donna during an interview: The chef just needs a good business mind to run his restaurants. In other words, Donna needs his own Rob Wilder, the guy that runs the business for THINKfoodGROUP so that José Andrés can continue to play with immersion circulators and agar agar. (Relax, José, I know you do more than that!)
Here's hoping that if Donna does manage to open another fine-dining Italian restaurant in D.C. he will be smart enough to hire sound, competent, and tough-minded business professionals to run it for him.
Photo by Charles Steck