Chef Roberto Donna is defying expectations. His new downtown venture, Galileo III—which opened Monday—won’t debut with trendy small plates or gastropub fare. His menu sticks to the boom-era prices of the Galileo he launched in the early 1980s and closed in 2006. Most surprising, though, is that Galileo III has opened at all.
Predictions for the restaurant’s debut were made soon after Donna announced his lease on the former Butterfield 9 space in June 2009, and speculators grew doubtful after word of his legal and financial troubles—including two federal court cases—spread through the news. When a late-summer opening never happened, forecasts were made for last fall, then winter, then spring of this year. But Donna, sitting at one of the white-clothed tables in the 80-seat dining room, doesn’t seem flustered by months of public scrutiny of his progress.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m opening a restaurant,” he says. “It’s not the first restaurant to not open on time.”
Keeping the original wheel can work in one’s favor, and at Galileo III, Donna is cooking the same kind of authentic Italian fare that gained national attention at his original Galileo and won him a James Beard award. The menu is more traditional than the ones at Bibiana or Tosca, similarly priced downtown DC Italian places that experiment with squid-ink vinaigrette and chocolate “salami.” That isn’t to say Donna cooks without creativity. Anyone who experienced the Laboratorio—an intimate feast prepared directly by Donna and current G3 chef de cuisine Claudio Sandri—knows that Donna has a style that’s his own. But in the main dining room, the printed à la carte selections read like streamlined versions of the classics. There’s branzino crudo with toasted pine nuts, raisins, and Ligurian olive oil; sautéed veal medallions atop polenta with mushrooms; and the agnolotti—“pillow” pasta filled with spinach and ricotta, then cloaked with creamy mascarpone sauce—that was a favorite at the original Galileo.
“We’re trying to do the most authentic thing we can,” Donna says. “When you’ve just come back from Italy, and you tell me, ‘Oh, this was just like the food we had last week,’ that’s the biggest compliment.”
Those looking for a more elaborate experience can opt for the three- ($55), four- ($72), five- ($89) or ten-course ($120) tasting menus. There, Donna shows a bolder, more modern style, making crudo of veal instead of fish, and pairing a Shenandoah lamb chop with braised artichoke and coffee sauce. Even more extravagant will be the Laboratorio dinners, which are scheduled to begin once regular service is running smoothly. As at the former Laboratorio, there will be a limited number of seats (28 reservations per night, Thursday through Saturday) for a culinary show that changes with the season and chef’s whimsy—and there’ll be a hefty $135-per-person price tag.
Donna was also known for more humble gestures. His popular lunchtime grill, which ran inside the dining room that by night housed Laboratorio, was a precursor to the current food-truck craze, with patrons lining up for $5 pork-shoulder and sausage sandwiches. Plans to resurrect the grill are on hold, but for now diners can find similar fare in a small bar area. A list of casual dishes such as penne arrabbiata and bucatini amatriciana is served alongside specialty cocktails created by Chris Cunningham, formerly of Dino.
Donna is also focusing on setting a good mood. He’s aiming for careful service, choosing the floor staff himself to ensure “good personalities” (most likely a reaction to the rampant complaints about bad service at his defunct Crystal City venture, Bebo Trattoria). He also wants to interact with customers, which is why he tore down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. “I like to see my customers,” he says. “The expression on their face never lies when they put in the first bite. They can hate it and after they say, ‘Oh, I looove it,’ but when you see that first bite, you know.”
Open daily for lunch and dinner.