Annual "best of" lists are made for arguing, but even given that, this year’s restaurant round-up from longtime Esquire writer John Mariani contains at least one major “huh?” item.
Restaurant of the year went to Atlanta’s the Optimist, restaurateur of the year was Gabriel Stulman, from Perla, in New York City, and Drew Nieporent (Montrachet, the various Nobus, Tribeca, Corton) was selected for the Esquire Restaurant Hall of Fame.
But the choice that has really turned some heads was chef of the year – Washington, D.C.’s Roberto Donna. Undoubtedly a great cook, Donna has been beset by financial and legal difficulties, which were amply documented by the Washington Post just last year.
Mariani cited Donna’s work at Al Dente, a pasta and wood-burning pizza oven place that takes a much more casual approach to dining than Donna’s previous palatial Galileos (there were three of them, all closed). “After four decades, Roberto Donna of Al Dente in Washington, D.C., proves himself still to be the best Italian chef in America,” Mariani wrote.
That doesn't square with Post critic Tom Sietsema’s two-star (out of four) review. On the other hand, maybe this most recent incarnation at Al Dente (originally called La Forchetta) is what will prove Donna’s redemption. He is working for Hakan Illhan, described by the Post as a “fast-food king” who runs a string of restaurants including the Pizza Autentica chain and three Einstein Brothers pretzel shops.
As the Post story announcing the deal said: "'Roberto is going to be successful' this time, says his new employer, who plans to keep the chef away from anything to do with 'paying people or suppliers.'”
And Donna conceded: “I am going to be the cook and Hakan is going to be the business guy.”