This is what’s missing from so many of the restaurants I’ve been to lately: the feminine touch. Donatella Arpaia is the consummate gracious hostess. Tall and striking, with a mane of streaked blond hair, she patrols the packed white-and-yellow dining room in high heels and miniskirt, chatting with customers. An ex-attorney whose father was in the restaurant business (Scarlatti and Lello), she also owns David Burke & Donatella, where she thoughtfully provides a white limousine parked outside the front door for cigarette smokers to lounge in between courses.
Now she’s teamed up with the talented chef Michael Psilakis to open Dona in the space that housed her first restaurant, Bellini. Mr. Psilakis made his reputation at Onera on the Upper West Side, where he reinvented Greek cuisine with dishes such as goat moussaka, sheep-milk dumplings and Hellenic versions of crudo. At Dona, he adopts Italy and Spain as well, with an expansive menu that includes 14 first courses, seven pasta dishes, nine main courses and even a lobster tasting. While you’re looking through it, you won’t be able to resist the thin breadsticks sprinkled with sesame and fennel seeds. We ate two rounds.
A long white plate the waiter set down before us contained an armada of small vessels placed in a straight line, as if ready to take off on a race. Their sails were made of strips of guanciale bacon flying over chunks of soft octopus simmered in red wine and served on slices of peach. The sight made me wonder just how complex and unlikely a marriage of flavors this chef was capable of carrying off.
Quite a few, it seems. Raw seafood meze were among the high points. Oysters were garnished with pink grapefruit and salty ginger, sea urchin topped with burrata and caviar on a fava bean purée. A tartare of yellowtail was served under a cap of fried capers; orange marlin came with mozzarella and basil. A strip steak arrived with bowls of creamy lemon gremolata and beef “lardo” (fat from the steak). The de rigueur steakhouse tomato salad and creamed spinach take on new life in Mr. Psilakis’ hands. Wedges of ripe tomato were tossed with grilled onions and feta, and a bechamel-creamed spinach was served in a phyllo cup. What would this guy do with cottage fries?
His grilled loin of pork was oddly dull, though, and we had to order a side of broccoli rabe to perk it up. (“Fresh in from the market this morning,” said the waiter cheerfully; I should hope so!)
Sometimes Mr. Psilakis tries too hard. The cannelloni was as baroque a pasta dish as you can imagine, assembled with veal, porcini mushrooms and fontina, sprinkles of hardboiled egg yolk and mâche, and a black truffle vinaigrette. I lost my way. But the mezzaluna made with chestnuts and topped with queso de cabra were irresistible, as was the unctuous green risotto, crowned with giant blue prawns and pecorino romano. The grilled sardines and the seared sea scallops with wild asparagus and morels were superb. The cod, however, came with a spicy Italian-sausage crust that I found a bit too strong for that shy fish.
I’ll never be able to order grilled branzino again without thinking of Bill Buford’s description in his wonderful book Heat. He destroyed 18 out of 39 working on the line at Babbo, straining to get it right by lifting the head off the flames with a towel while clasping the tail with tongs. No signs of such struggling at Dona: The grilled branzino was perfectly cooked, served with artichoke confit and fingerling potatoes.
Pastry chef Nancy Olson’s desserts were impressive. The chocolate mousse cake looked like a Frank Gehry building, topped with swirls of dark chocolate, with sea salt and caramel. We’d also ordered a lemon soufflé. The waiter came to apologize: The chef had burned his hand pulling the soufflé out of the oven and was making another one. (Was Mr. Buford helping out in the kitchen?) It was worth the wait, light and intensely lemony, served with a lemon-hazelnut gelato. We ate it guiltily, thinking of the poor chef’s hand.
There are also half a dozen cheese plates on the menu, served with an interesting selection of sweet wines. A scoop of soft mizithra cheese from Crete came with praline and a cherry verjus granite that looked like a pile of chopped-up rubies. A pungent gorgonzola picante was matched with fig balsamic granite and crispy prosciutto, and Pouligny St. Pierre, a goat’s cheese, went well with pear granite and bacon.
The dining room at Dona, with its yellow banquettes, zebra-striped carpet and soft lighting, is relaxed and comfortable, although it is quite noisy (but not unpleasantly so—no piped in music). At the white quartz bar at the front, you can order a Donatina, the delicious and not-too-sweet house cocktail made with Lillet and vodka, laced with thin twirls of orange peel.
The clientele aren’t all typical chic Upper East Side restaurant-goers. They’re of all ages and backgrounds, some smartly dressed in designer clothes, others in open-neck shirts without a passing thought for fashion. The Gemütlichkeit reflects the spirit of the owner. One evening, she stopped by our table. “Have you changed your hair color?” asked one of my friends, a literary agent who’d met her before.
“Yes, I wanted something different,” she replied. “But the other night, one of my customers looked at me and said, ‘Have you had work done?’ Can you imagine asking someone that?”
Only on the Upper East Side.
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