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Photography by Greg Powers

The Prima Donna

by George W. Stone | DC magazine | November 27, 2012

When Hakan Ilhan’s Al Dente opened in Wesley Heights, its name wasn’t Al Dente. It was La Forchetta; though you may recall that a trademark squabble quickly led to its re-christening. Neither the sleek, casual-chic Italian eatery, nor its coterie of fans, seemed to care. Why? Because Al Dente’s name doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Roberto Donna is there—cooking.

To followers of DC’s most written-about chef, Donna’s name means everything—first and foremost, his culinary greatness at Galileo, the long-shuttered restaurant that all but reinvented fine Italian dining in the District. Launched in 1984, when Donna was a 24-year-old culinary prodigy from Italy’s Piedmont region, Galileo reached for the Michelin stars. In doing so, it proved that haute French fare (and Jean-Louis Palladin) weren’t the only supernovas in the District’s culinary constellation.

The idea that Donna’s past glory could overcome a series of career-challenging events (with severe legal consequences) is the promise that Al Dente offers—and delivers in dishes as soulfully satisfying as pappardelle with wild boar ragu. Donna’s take on one of Tuscany’s classic dishes is a deliciously earthy stew served over ribbons of housemade noodles that are, as the restaurant’s name suggests, perfectly al dente. Another simple—to eat, if not to cook—dish that affirms the chef’s command of his Northern Italian cookbook is a daily special of porcini mushroom risotto, an aromatic and rich presentation that asks for little more than a light dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a glass of Chianti and a chilly winter afternoon.

“My food is the same as at Galileo; it’s just more Italian now,” Donna says, a day after returning from Piedmont. “The older I get, the more I want to cook exactly as they do in Italy. The rule there is simplicity and flavor—you try to simplify a dish and improve its taste.” It’s not hard to see where Donna is coming from when you tear into his roasted veal with porcini mushroom sauce—more than anything else, it’s the golden hue and savory gusto of the Milanese sauce, herb-scented and studded with tender mushrooms, that seems like the ideal reduction of all things Italiano.

The same sprezzatura is evident in a hot appetizer (cicchetti caldi) of meatballs, which is the boffo upgrade Bolognese always begged for, tagliatelle not included. I’m picky enough to say that Nicholas Stefanelli’s polpette antipasto at Bibiana is better, but Donna’s effort is good enough to merit mention, and that’s hardly the only accolade the James Beard Award-winning chef has recently accrued.

In November’s “Best New Restaurants in America” issue of Esquire, John Mariani crowns Donna Chef of the Year. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, your eyebrows aren’t the only ones to rise. When I asked him about the recognition, Donna gilded the lily by noting that Mariani is “the best journalist for Italian food in America.” I can agree that appreciating Al Dente has a lot to do with appreciating Italian restaurants, both in America and back in the homeland. (The table next to mine featured four Italian 60-somethings chatting away in their native tongue, clearly in their element.) When it comes to bona fides, Donna’s earned his keep—he’s operated some 20 restaurants in the area. “Over the last 30 years, I did a lot for Italian food in DC... and, I have to say, in the country,” he told me. Humility or not—I can’t tell which, actually—he’s a force to be reckoned with.

As are some of his dishes, which isn’t always good. A special of fried zucchini flower stuffed with ricotta, mint and lemon presented more chunks of zucchini than it did flower—which hardly mattered, since the experience was all about the potently salty exterior. Ditto the fritto on unpleasantly pungent fried anchovies. Why do I keep ordering fried things? Oh yes: because I’m hoping to get back to the heaven that is Palena’s fritto misto. Not here.

A subset of Al Dente’s way-too-long menu—which stretches across three dense pages and more than 60 selections—lists Donna’s specialties. “Rabbit, tripe, squab: We sell a lot of strange stuff,” the chef told me. Avoid the temptation to dig deep into this exotica. My stew of Virginia-raised braised rabbit, served over a bed of polenta, managed to be both wet and dry, resembling an inverted shepherd’s pie, Italian-style.

Our server was energetic, charming and authentically Italian. I should have taken his—and Donna’s—advice and stuck to the basics. But I was seduced by the specialties and ordered a bafflingly flavorless squid ink fettuccine dish advertised to include 1 pound of lobster; I would be shocked if there were even 5 ounces of crustacean. Beyond my disappointment with this dish in particular, I realized the menu’s elaborate scope, in general, all but guarantees misfires.

From the upscale to the more democratic, pizza is a hit at Al Dente for two reasons. First, restaurant owner Ilhan has made a fortune with his Pizza Autentica chain; he knows pies. Second, the entire interior revolves around an 800-pound pizza oven that blasts at 700 degrees and a staging ground that turns pizza-making into an entertaining spectacle. For dinner and a show, the best seats at Al Dente are near the pizzaiolo.

“A chef should not follow a trend; he should follow his personality,” Donna told me. Having pioneered Italian cuisine in the region, the chef now cooks to satisfy himself. Homemade sausage skewers served over polenta are wonderful, especially the veal and pork sausage with hints of rosemary. Gnocchi with fava beans and basil pesto is precisely as gratifying as it sounds. Lasagnette al forno comes in a cast-iron pan, sizzling under a bubbling bronze crust of cheese. And a massive hemisphere of tiramisu with caramelized hazelnuts reinvents the rules on this oft-maligned mainstay. Big enough to serve the table, this cocoa-dusted half-globe of velvety mascarpone, ladyfingers and liqueur comes with a tiny cup of thick hot chocolate to pour onto the “pick-me-up,” creating a hot/cool all-hands-on-deck dessert that delights.

You could call Al Dente a comeback—but Donna’s been here for years. Some might call it a prelude—next year, Donna and Ilhan will open a hipper Italian outpost near Mount Vernon Triangle. Others might even call it a renaissance for the chef—it’s no Galileo, but it could become a go-to for pastas and pizza. I prefer to call Al Dente, simply, “Casa Roberto,” with all the idiosyncrasies the name implies. Why didn’t Donna think of that?

Al Dente Ristorante
3201 New Mexico Ave. NW
202.244.2223
aldentedc.com

Open for breakfast weekdays, brunch on weekends.
Lunch: Daily, 11:30am-3pm
Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 5-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-12:30am

Appetizers: $9-$18
Entrées: $15-$30
Desserts: $8-$9

The Lowdown
Stick to the basics. Imagine you’re in Piedmont, and you’re hungry. The simpler the dish sounds, the better (and more authentically Italian) it will be.

The Look
The goal was to create a “modern urban Italian trattoria... [with a] Ferrari-like interior.” The result is an energetic, but unnecessarily noisy (what’s up with the Jersey Shore soundtrack?), space of industrial steel, wood and polished orange wall panels and chairs, which echo the colorfulness of Donna’s trademark eyeglasses.

The Libations
Go all Italian, from Campari, Aperol and prosecco cocktails (the boldest is a bourbon, sweet vermouth and Fernet-Branca concoction called Fanciulli) to a wine list that covers Italy’s grape-growing regions with a number of budget-friendly finds. Postprandial amaros, from Montenegro to Averna, make the ideal nightcap.

The Weekend
Brunch carries a bit of Roman flair. A prix-fixe menu offers three courses, plus a Bellini. Fried pizza dough is rolled in sugar and served with honey and chocolate. Special pastas, egg dishes, pizza and panini make for a festive morning.