It’s Bella Donatella’s Fourth! Can $800K Buy a Hot Joint?

Last winter, Donatella Arpaia added an extra four-top to the dining room of her Upper East Side restaurant, DavidBurke & Donatella. That table will bring in $200,000 over the course of a year.

Those funds represent just a quarter of the capital for her newest restaurant, Dona, which will open on March 27. “The No. 1 reason restaurants fail is undercapitalization,” Ms. Arpaia said during the early minutes of dinner service at her small Soho boîte, Ama. Ms. Arpaia, 33, was dressed in her downtown togs: pointed red boots with a vertiginously high heel, fitted dark-wash jeans, a décolletage top and a brimmed hat. (“Prada,” she said. “I’ve got a good hat head. A hat face.”)

“They budget $500,000 for the restaurant and don’t realize you need another $200,000 just for starting capital, just for food, to buy alcohol, to have payroll in the beginning, to have uniforms.” And so, for Dona, she has pulled together some $800,000.

According to the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, the city’s approximately 25,000 restaurants do more than $11 billion in sales every year. The Zagat Survey found that nearly 250 restaurants opened in the city in 2005. Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the NYSRA’s local chapter, reports that about 70 percent of restaurants fail within the first five years, many of those within the first 12 months.

Ms. Arpaia doesn’t work with investors; instead, she provides all the capital herself. So the money she spends is free to be expressed entirely in what she sees as her unique stock in trade: the right chairs, bread, staff. But even with the cash in place, “it’s scary,” she said. “I’m scared to death because I’m coming off such a big success.”

Almost every night of every week, Ms. Arpaia performs on the stages that are her restaurants, greeting guests, massaging egos, cracking the whip on her staff. She is frequently the main character. “I have to change from restaurant to restaurant every day. I have closets at all the restaurants. So you should see the changes. Because there’s a different part I have to dress for each restaurant,” she said. “It’s like a Broadway show every night. And you can’t fake it. It gets tiring, but I like it. It’s great. I love being with people.”

Technically, Dona will be her fourth stage: She closed her first restaurant, Bellini, in early February to open Dona in its place. “Bellini no longer is—and truthfully never was—a reflection of who I was and my style,” she said. “I was new to the business, and I think I relied too much on my father. It was pretty, but it wasn’t me. So I have to just shut down and redo the whole thing.”

And that decision isn’t without risk. “Every restaurant I’ve opened, I’ve had to double my budget,” Ms. Arpaia said.

MS. ARPAIA’S FATHER OWNED LELLO AND SCARLATTI, two classic Manhattan boîtes that were among the first to combine French-style service with Italian cuisine—but, except for one summer when she served as a cashier, Ms. Arpaia wasn’t allowed to work in either. “He wouldn’t even let me get a job as a waitress in another restaurant, because he felt service was demeaning and didn’t want that for his child,” she said.

“I’m all Italian, and I grew up in an all-Jewish neighborhood because my father opened up an Italian restaurant there, because he heard that Jewish people don’t eat Italian food and they don’t cook. Thirty-three years ago. So here I am, Donatella—no one knew the name Donatella, and he raised me in the Five Towns, where I have my kosher friends who can’t come over, I don’t know what’s going on, my mom’s jarring tomato sauce in August, and you have these women who are getting their nails done every day. It’s such a culture shock.”

Instead of entering into the family business, she was supposed to go to college and law school, and so she did, passing the bar in 1996. After seven months practicing law, she gave it up, opening Bellini in 1997 and taking classes at the French Culinary Institute. The high-end Old World Neapolitan restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side developed a fiercely loyal following, especially among the neighborhood’s older residents. “I remember when I opened up this place,” she said. “I wanted young people, and I found that the older clientele that were coming in were really embracing me and appreciating it and loving it because it takes care of them. And I was just like, ‘You know what? This is what it is. It’s not going to be this trendy place, but there’s a beauty in what I’ve created here, too. And I’m going to make the best of it.’ And that’s what I did.” Her father stood behind her and assisted mightily in the creation of Bellini, but he was conflicted about her entry into the field. “It was very difficult for him to accept. He still hasn’t,” she said.

It was her second spot, 2003’s DavidBurke & Donatella, a partnership with chef and culinary showman David Burke, that put her on the New York restaurant map. “The scariest and smartest thing I ever did,” she said, “was putting my name up on that canopy. I am trying to build a brand, and it forces people to say, ‘Who’s Donatella?’ I insisted on that.”

Ama, her third project, opened in 2005, but she sold her equity stake in it to her partner there earlier this year.

The powerhouse DavidBurke & Donatella, meanwhile, earned two stars from The New York Times, three from the New York Post and another metric of success: Page Six mentions; Star Jones dining out; Meg Ryan and Iman at a Glamour magazine fête.

The restaurant garnered as much attention for its food and its celebrity clientele as for the conspicuous white stretch limo that parked outside the restaurant all through the winter months, there to provide a warm haven for diners requiring a cigarette.

MS. ARPAIA’S PARTNER IN DONA IS MICHAEL PSILAKIS, the chef-owner of Onera, which was ranked one of Zagat’s best 2005 newcomers. “The great thing about a partnership,” Ms. Arpaia said, “is when both partners realize the other person’s strengths and lets them do their thing. I’m going to be part of the menu and the tastings and all that, but I’m going to let him do his thing. Just like he’s like, ‘I know it’s going to be beautiful—I don’t even want to know. Just give me the kitchen and let me cook. I know. You do your thing, Donatella—I know.’ And he’s happy that he doesn’t have to be a restaurateur. He only has to be a chef, and he can just cook and do what he wants to do. A real chef—that’s what they want to do. He’s obsessed with food. He talks about it, he thinks about it. He calls me and leaves me a message about a dish. O.K.!”

“Why is this place so successful?” she asked one afternoon at the height of the holiday-shopping season, sitting in DavidBurke & Donatella’s bustling main dining room, ladies who lunch and shop all around her. “There are a lot of successful restaurants, but you want them jam-packed-out-of-the-gate so successful. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I came from, so that’s what I want.”

“When we open up,” said her chef, Mr. Psilakis, “there’s going to be a lot of people in the restaurant industry watching us, seeing what we’re going to do.”

So what will watchers see of that $800,000? The creation of the restaurant space—and the budget for it—is the element over which Ms. Arpaia can exert the least control.

She works with a designer named Matthew Sudock, who also did the interiors of DavidBurke & Donatella, Ama and Onera. “I constantly tell Matthew, ‘You know what DBD is. This place has got to be fucking hot. Sexy,’” she said, “‘ sexy sexy. But not becoming trendy-supermodel sexy.’

“It’s going to be spectacular,” she said, “but every spectacular idea costs me money.”

Mr. Sudock’s fee is figured into the $60,000 that Ms. Arpaia budgeted for legal and design fees, but labor and construction alone are $150,000, with another $100,000 to upgrade and outfit the kitchen, $60,000 for custom woodwork and cabinetry, and $50,000 for marble and soapstone.

The dishes, silver and glassware will cost her about $60,000.

She’ll spend $50,000 just on chairs.

“I always like the most expensive things. I rein myself back in—I do. But it’s hard. Because I feel like, ‘Oh, I just saved $5,000 on the chairs, then I can spend it over there.’ But this is my money that I keep on spending.”

Ms. Arpaia considered a French-made acoustic ceiling that alone would have cost, she said, “35,000 fucking dollars,” instead of “ugly ceiling tiles.” She got that price knocked down to $25,000, but in the end opted to spend that money on a new floor, as well as sound-absorbent carpeting and wall coverings instead.

Staffing represents its own challenges, though they are, for the most part, not monetary. She knows what she wants from her staff—and what she doesn’t. “I can’t afford people around me that give me tons of excuses. I need solutions, or else why am I hiring you?”

And she’s not above poaching. “If I see someone great in another restaurant, I will approach them and try to steal them. Absolutely. When I get a great server, he will get my card.” It works: The general manager of Dona will be coming from the Harvard Club.

Other members of the talent pool of her three restaurants are often re-utilized. The service director, Matthew, started as a waiter at DavidBurke & Donatella and filled various positions at Ms. Arpaia’s restaurants before she made him the sommelier at Ama. She clearly thinks very highly of him, but at an early-November lunch when the key members of Dona’s staff all met for the first time, Matthew was the last to show up. She had intentionally told him a later arrival time. “I could have had him come at 1,” she said, “but I’m a little annoyed with him lately, so I want to punish him a little bit. He’s getting a little too confident. I want to keep him on his toes.”

The rest can be a crapshoot. “Dishwashers, porters—they’re huge, the backbone of every restaurant,” Ms. Arpaia said. The mid-level positions are the hardest. “People don’t want to be around for the opening. They want to come three months later. All the best people come after, when they realize that it’s a success. Good people, they’re like gypsies. They go to the hottest restaurant.”

WHAT MAKES A RESTAURANT HOT IS A CONSTANT theme of discussion between Ms. Arpaia and Mr. Psilakis. “What differentiates you from being a restaurant that’s just a new New York restaurant or a success—a success in a big way, where you are packing them in—are the details. It’s the energy that comes from a restaurant.” The discussions and decisions that guide their hotness plan are freewheeling and existential, ranging from the big picture—What is a restaurant? What is this restaurant?—to the small: Is focaccia too rustic a bread to serve at a formal restaurant? Do prix fixe menus make diners feel like they’re being taken advantage of?

During a lunch meeting at Bellini in November, the hotness detail of the moment was Dona’s wine list. Ms. Arpaia’s team tried to convince her of an unconventional list: a configuration with bottles listed by grape varietal instead of by region. She worried it would confuse and put off patrons. Unconvinced but finding herself losing, she closed debate by pressing her partners for a sample menu page so she could see what diners would see. A few weeks later, she had seen the sample page and been converted, but still sounded like she might be trying to convince herself: “It is interesting. It’s going to be good. It’s a great idea.” Mr. Psilakis exclaimed, “It’s going to revolutionize wine lists!” Before opening, she’ll purchase $135,000 worth of wine and alcohol.

At times during the process, Mr. Psilakis and the designer, Mr. Sudock, seemed not even to speak the same language, Ms. Arpaia said. At a meeting in early December, Mr. Psilakis presented some plates that Mr. Sudock found “too organic.” Mr. Psilakis, however, didn’t get it. “I was going to punch him in the face,” he later said. “What exactly does ‘organic’ mean? Listen, if I throw a piece of meat on the table, is he going to know how to cook it? I’m like, ‘Matthew, I need to see—do you have a picture of something?’” Thankfully, Mr. Sudock did produce pictures.

About this moment of tension, Ms. Arpaia said, “Fifty percent of the time, it’s not about argument; it’s just that the other person doesn’t understand what the other is saying. It’s important that you keep talking until you get there.

“And we have to wear many hats. We have to do TV appearances, we have to make recipes, we have to be the host. We have to manage the staff. We have staff meetings. Be the parent, be the bank, because you’re loaning everyone money. You’re constantly doing a hundred different things all the time.

“And I just say as a woman it’s harder,” she said, “only because I’m being looked at all the time too, because I have to look the part and I can’t be off, and I’m being dissected, and I have to be sure my nails and my hair and my makeup and my latest outfit are just right. They don’t look at that with the men. I’m on display as a product as well.”

It’s Bella Donatella’s Fourth! Can $800K Buy a Hot Joint?