December 13, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Donatella Trims Sail

Donatella Arpaia doresn’t actually paddle pizza but she could. Photo: Steven Richter
Donatella Arpaia doesn’t actually paddle pizza but she could. Photo: Steven Richter

        Before there was Donatella the Brand, there was Donatella the Woman, obedient old world Italian daughter and serious restaurateur, an odd mix of vulnerability and drive in a beautiful New York woman. But I don’t twist myself into a pretzel analyzing what fuels Danny Meyer or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, so maybe I’ll just give Donatella Arpaia a break. There’s no need to run through the roster of chef-partners who kissed and got away. If you don’t already know, you needn’t really care. She’s still in the race, though she’s dumbed down her goals for now since the chichi heat of David Burke and Donatella, the sophisticated ambitions of Dona and Anthos (Greek for dream), the dream that died.

Our first pizza was soft and soggy Neapolitan style but we loved the salad. Photo: Steven Richter

        The goods news is that the new Donatella in Chelsea is much more than just another Neapolitan pizzeria surrounding a bar, as it sounded in early hype. What matters in the gathering specter of Donatella the Celebrity is that you may actually find her in this long narrow room, decked out by the Dutch designer Brood with vintage maps of Naples and beguiling wagon wheel light fixtures overhead, packed with the young, sharing a decent pizza and excellent fried calamari with lemon bottarga aioli or a huge platter of salad, perhaps bitter greens with anchovy vinaigrette and crispy pork belly.

Seafood caponata and fried calamari to dip in lemon-bottarga aioli. Photo: Steven Richter

        Granted, it’s low frill – a warm welcome not quite making up for tiny tables stuffed close together with bunched up coats (no checkroom) and revved up voices bouncing off brick and plaster. There are no serving spoons offered for divvying dishes. One has to ask each time. I’m weighing that against the cheery serving crew and how good the food can be. And how reasonable. Even if you’re ravenous or over-order as I usually do, you might spend only $50 per person with pasta just $15 to $17 and grills starting at $23 for whole sea bream. But we’re surrounded by savvy millennials eating for much less, following a $16 pizza with a small sharable portion of the elegant Naples-style eggplant parmigiana, just $13, or a recent $8 antipasti addition imported from Mia Dona, five of Mama Maria’s luscious meatballs – the soft and savory orbs that took first place against 40 top chefs, including Rocco Dispirito’s Mama Nicolina in a recent Meatball Mania clash. They star in Saltimbocca “jump-in-the-mouth” pressed pizza bread sandwiches at lunch. [click and scroll down for more on meatballs]

Lasagna di Carnevale, paccheri alla Genovese, bucatini with sardines. Photo: Steven Richter

        On our earliest visits, La Arpaia suddenly materialized on the floor in form-fitting minis as if summoned from…who knows where, to schmooze up a critic. The first night she sent out two big logs of luscious potato croquette from the options listed under Fritti - reviving memories of greasy brown paper snacks filled with these street food favorites of Naples. We tried all the pastas too, debating our favorites, big tubes of al dente paccheri alla Genovese (with braised beef and sweet onion sauce) vs. spaghettini with sea urchin and fennel, taking home the rotisserie’d D’Artagnan chicken we just couldn’t finish.

Lemon ricotta fritters with Amarena cherries and pistachios. Photo: Steven Richter

        With the table covered in a temptation of lemon ricotta fritters, lemon mousse filled coconut cake, the classic Neapolitan layered Sfogliatella pastry and flourless chocolate almond cake, $7 desserts we hadn’t ordered, we ignored the annoying din and our size 2 guest even forgot her diet vows. “My pastry chef Andrea Jarosh is half Sicilian, half Puerto Rican,” says Donatella, introducing her.

A light crowd that first night made the sound bearable. Photo: Steven Richter

        But the noise was like a perfect storm the Saturday night we returned with friends from Aspen and Cebu. The crowd was big and boozy and uninhibited, waiting for tables, packing the bar, shouting to each other. It was like sitting inside an airplane engine. None of us could hear each other across the tiny table. Aspen yelled in Cebu’s ear. My throat was sore from shouting. It almost didn’t matter that the seafood salad caponata di mare was original and good, that the calamari quickly disappeared and that I liked the crisper Cappellacio pizza with charred and marinated mushrooms. I realized I could never return. The noise was exhuasting. We took our Aspen pal to dinner again the next night so we could talk.

         At Mia Dona a week later, to check out the meatball cart, I told Donatella we would never go back.

         “I’m shocked,” she said. “You are the only one to complain about noise,” she said.

         Of course she could have been lying. Steven didn’t want to return, but I insisted. “We need to know if it was just a Saturday night tornado.”

         Tonight on a relatively calm Wednesday at 8, the two of us arrive without a reservation and spy the boss communing with the kitchen crew. (Though you aren’t likely to catch her paddling pies as in the photograph.) She sits down beside Steven on the banquette and eyes our pizza. I’ve asked to have it extra crisp, even slightly scorched.

Donatella bowing to complaints, orders pizzas cooked longer.  Photo: Steven Richter

        “So many people complained, we’re cooking them ten seconds longer,” she explains. Fifty-five seconds instead of the forty-five it took to turn out the soft doughy rounds in the sparkly gold tiled oven she had an Italian master build on site. There’s definitely an improvement in our favorite, the Diavolo, with peppery batons of spicy sausage on San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and pecorino. Steven actually likes the scorch better than I do. I’m focused on my favorite salad here, Donatella’s namesake chopped vegetable salad -- chunkier than most other chopped salads -- with large slivers of carrot, thin petals of pink radish, bits of broccoli and cauliflower, radicchio and cabbage, all smartly dressed.

Donatella and chef Jarett Appell (formerly Union Square Cafe and Mia dona) shop for equipment in Naples.

        “We can actually talk tonight,” I observe.

         “I asked about complaints. My staff thinks that noise just bounces off that one table,” she said. Yes, and if you close your eyes, you can’t get pregnant, I thought.

         “Well, look around,” I said, “The bar is just half full tonight and we’re surrounded by tables full of women. Who do you think they are?”

This is not a Rorschach test. They happen to be marvelous cannoli. Photo: Steven Richter

        “They follow me,” she said “They’re my fans.” She encourages me. “If you write about the women, I’m sure that will bring in some cute straight guys which will also lead to more gay guys. Win win for me.”

184 Eighth Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets. 212 493 5150. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 4 pm, Lunch-brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 4 pm to midnight, Thursday through Saturday to 1 am.
Cafe Fiorello