There are more than a few accomplished female chefs working in restaurants these days, but women restaurateurs are still a scarce and rarefied breed. This is especially true in the upper echelons of the business in this town, where you need the nerves of a high-stakes gambler, the showmanship of a carnival barker, and the taste of a gourmet savant to survive. During the course of her relatively short career, Donatella Arpaia, an ex-attorney and the daughter of an ex-restaurateur, has exhibited all of these qualities. She’s not afraid to name restaurants after herself (she seems to insist on it), and she has shown a talent for cajoling good work from gifted, potentially irascible, and, yes, male chefs. Her most notable prior venture was Davidburke & Donatella, a successful collaboration with the prodigiously creative though volatile David Burke. Now comes a second eponymous establishment, this one called Dona, and a second high-profile collaboration, this time with Michael Psilakis, another talented chef, with a tendency toward the baroque.
Psilakis was a restaurant executive like Arpaia (he ran an Italian joint out on Long Island) before undergoing a kind of ecstatic conversion and teaching himself how to cook. He made his reputation at Onera, on the Upper West Side, spinning out unlikely Greek creations like raw-lamb meze and towering, Portale-style assemblages of moussaka made with braised goat. At Dona, Psilakis blends Greek and Italian (the restaurant’s theme is “southern European cuisine”), and Arpaia makes sure that it’s packaged with a subtle, feminine touch. The room is a medley of lush yellows, black trim, and stark Mediterranean whites. There’s a white marble bar in front, where you can prop yourself on white leather bar stools, pop olives in your mouth, and sip strangely palatable margaritas tipped with ouzo. Inside, the whitewashed walls, the egg-colored banquettes, and the plush zebra rug make the dining room look like an oddly successful fusing of the Coconut Grove and some fancy destination on the Amalfi coast.
The food at Dona is probably more Italian than Greek, and the first thing you notice is that there’s an awful lot of it. The menu is a convoluted document, containing “cooked” and “uncooked” appetizer sections, a pasta section, meat and fish sections, and a “traditional” section at lunchtime reserved for items like spaghetti carbonara and linguini alla vongole. Our explorations began with the uncooked appetizers, a fashionable genre for which Psilakis has something of an obsession and a special talent. At Onera, raw meat was one of his specialties, but here he conjures up a whole grab bag of intricate fish tartares (try the yellowtail, folded with artichoke and crowned with crisped capers), mezes (pearly shrimp with feta), and crudi-style smooth teaspoons of uni paired with crushed fava beans, caviar, and creamy burrata cheese. Then came the cooked appetizers, all of them pretty good and several of them exceptional, particularly the almond-crusted prawns and the octopus, which was simmered in red wine and served in little candy-size nuggets with peaches and salty wafers of crisped guanciale.
It’s Psilakis’s style to make these recipes almost willfully intricate, and although he sometimes gets carried away, the results are always arresting, and often excellent. The pastas are probably the weakest part of the menu, but even they get your attention. My mother, who fit right in with the decorous midtown lunch crowd that Arpaia seeks to cultivate, commented favorably on her portion of linguini alla vongole (my mother comments favorably on most things). My carbonara seemed a little overyolked but perfectly good. On another visit to Dona, however, the lamb Bolognese seemed to have been oversweetened with some rogue spice that tasted like cinnamon, and my big, unwieldy veal cannelloni was sprinkled, unaccountably, with hard-boiled egg. I couldn’t stop gobbling down the little half-moon mezzaluna ravioli (stuffed with chestnuts and duck), however, and Psilakis’s buttery, heavily truffled reprise of the tiresomely fashionable Florentine dumplings called gnudi drew gasps of wonder from the assembled gastronomes at my table and are, in fact, worth a special trip.
As befits a restaurant with Mediterranean pretensions, the seafood at Dona is very good, occasionally inspired. For traditionalists, there are well-grilled sardines smothered in crushed garlic and a warm anchovy vinaigrette, a good gourmet version of fried calamari (served at lunchtime), and grilled branzino served over baby potatoes and artichokes and spritzed with lemon. Psilakis also pairs roast cod with littleneck clams and a delicious mix of crumbled Italian sausage and tomatoes, and if you order the lobster tasting menu (a relative bargain at $47), your lobster tail comes beautifully poached and sunk in a rich, velvety approximation of avgolemono, the famous Greek lemon-and-egg soup. In the meat section, there’s a good lamb loin, sliced like tenderloin and laid over a tasty mash of farro, lamb ragù, and fava beans; nicely charred portions of baby chicken (on a bed of lentils with almonds and dates); and an exceptional strip steak, cooked to a salty crisp and served with a round phyllo shell filled with creamed spinach.
In the evenings, with the lights turned down low, the room at Dona exudes a particular kind of polished, old-fashioned, big-city sheen. The choice banquettes are occupied by uptown matrons with $400 hairdos, and the gentlemen clustered around the bar are dressed in sharp Italian suits. For dessert there’s a lemon soufflé, which was fallen when I sampled it, and a zucchini chocolate cake, which is notable, mostly, for the walnut gelato it’s served with, spiked with a hint of thyme. There’s a nice dome of white chocolate, too, with frozen nougat-flavored mousse hidden inside (avoid the raspberry-rose sorbet on top), and a pleasingly dense mousse made with bittersweet chocolate and swatches of salty caramel. These sweets are followed by the inevitable platter of petits fours, if you wish, or a selection of esoteric teas. They’re brought to the table by fleets of attentive waiters, and even, on occasion, by the boss herself, who prowls the room, smoothing tablecloths, conferring with waiters, and dispensing pleasantries to her patrons like an old-school restaurant don. Only this particular don is dressed for the new millennium, in her designer outfits and jeweled high-heel shoes.
Address: 208 E. 52nd St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-308-0830
Hours: Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $16. Entrées, $20 to $45.
Ideal Meal: Any crudo, meze, or tartare; octopus with peaches; gnudi or duck mezzaluna; Shetland cod or chicken; white-chocolate semifreddo.
Note: Try the cheeses, which are served by the slice and paired with savory items (crispy prosciutto with Gorgonzola, say), specially flavored granités (iced pear with Pouligny-St.-Pierre), and a glass of dessert wine (’27 Pedro Ximénez sherry).
Scratchpad: Dona provides a posh multi-star setting for Arpaia’s new chef, and Psilakis delivers the food to match.