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Longtime observers of the foodie scene may remember Donna as the headliner of Galileo, her first Washington restaurant, which opened in 1984 when the native of Italy’s Piedmont region was just 23. years, and later revamped to include an intimate tasting room, the four-star Laboratorio del Galilee. The chef then opened 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 salaries. Consequently, his workplaces 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 “buona sera” behind the reception desk.
“I want Roberto to do what Roberto does best,” says Sabbagh, who brings up Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” when asked about Donna’s past business issues. “If I didn’t believe in him, I wouldn’t be doing this.” (Donna filed for bankruptcy in 2016. A lawsuit brought by former Bebo employees was settled two years ago, with Donna paying “over six figures” over the length of the judgment, says chief’s attorney Darrell W. Clark of Stinson LLP Regarding unpaid sales taxes to Bebo, a monthly check is sent to the Arlington County Circuit Court for restitution, Clark adds.)
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Donna, who hosted virtual dinner parties and late Cesco Osteria wine events in Bethesda during the pandemic, is as happy as a chef in her new perch. “It feels good. It feels normal,” Donna says of returning to work and her interactions with guests. Based on conversations with diners, he estimates that 75% of them were customers of Galileo, which closed in 2006 when the owner gutted the entire building housing the dining destination.
A painting of a younger Donna — well, her torso in chef’s white — hangs near the kitchen. “That was two sizes ago!” cracks the chef, now 61 years old and easily tagged by his Alain Mikli colored glasses. (Donna can make conversation about anything. When he sees a restaurant dive into a green salad made with shredded zucchini, toasted walnuts and a Caesar-like dressing, he issues a spoiler alert about an egg under goodness: “Everyone puts theirs on top!”)
A number of employees from Donna’s previous restaurants followed him to Roberto’s, making for some interesting throwback Thursdays — Saturdays, too. Servers I haven’t seen since George W. Bush took over the Oval Office have taken over their roles here.
Dining at Roberto’s exemplifies the beauty of Italian cuisine: good ingredients don’t require a lot of handling. Golden squash blossoms are stuffed with ricotta, lemon zest and mint, then fried and spread over a large pea pesto — a lovely ode to spring. An icon of the Chesapeake Bay, redfish glide across the table atop a white lake of potatoes hemmed in an orange sauce that weighs down with fennel, garlic, white wine and tomato. Crimson slices of roast venison are moistened with dollops of a brilliant barbaresco and balsamic reduction (pass the bread, please) and placed alongside a wedge of butter-brushed potatoes, with not much more than a grilled green onion as an accent.
The chef reminds you that he’s from northwest Italy with an order of gnocchi fonduta, a cheesy comfort food accented with diced asparagus and crispy veils of fried prosciutto. Donna also has an eye for decoration, as evidenced by the inky web of fried squid hovering above a collection of sweet-picked scallops over mashed potatoes and meaty 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 cooks to the beat of the season rather than resurrecting a bunch of greatest hits, though he does keep a stash of agnolotti del plin in the freezer for fans who might ask for the pizza-sized pasta. a stamp stuffed with beef, pork and the veal made famous at Galileo, where the dish was finished with a sage butter sauce and parmesan cheese. Roberto’s follows an Asian fusion restaurant, which left several woks when it closed. Donna says her friend and fellow DC longtime chef Kaz Okochi encouraged her to keep the slow cookers, which Donna uses to make pastas, including wavy ribbons of pappardelle, colored by carrots and tossed with cheese. chopped broccolini, tangy candied tomato and snowy bites of sea bream.
It took a village – or rather, Sabbagh and various family members, first and foremost a sister who worked at the Design Center – to design the look of the place, whose walls display masks the owner bought during her honeymoon in Venice and whimsical, Murano glass “candies”. As for Chihuly’s whimsical chandeliers, Sabbagh jokes that 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 light fixtures and coat hooks. Fabric purchased in Florence ties cushions made by Sabbagh, and a traveling cart becomes chattering as staff use it to carve a whole chicken or fillet a table-side fish.
Call on Dimitri Papahajidis for any liquid help. 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 all four Civetta Hospitality restaurants. A bottle of nero d’avola from Sicilian winery Gulfi – smelling of herbs and berries, glistening with acidity thanks to the chalky soil from which the grapes were picked – made a nice bridge to a recent meal of roasted branzino and of duck breast.
Roberto isn’t Donna’s only job. On weekdays, he spends his mornings in Rockville at ZeniMax Media, the video game publisher, which hired him before the pandemic to run its cafe menu. There, Donna focuses on directing specials. Every worker bee should be so lucky to have the option of rigatoni and prawns whipped up by a maestro.
The chef’s night shift is of more interest to those of us who live to eat, and I’m here to report that Donna is following her boss’s orders: do what he does best.
Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano
144 Church St. NW, Vienna, Virginia 703-223-5336. robertosva.com. To open: Indoor dining 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: Appetizers $16 to $22, pasta and entrees $28 to $46. Sound control: 74 decibels/must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No barrier to entry; ADA compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff are all vaccinated and wear masks.