By Phyllis Richman
Everyone who ventured to the Winter Olympics had a mission. Some went to see the world’s best figure skaters. Others went to watch a snowboarder win—or throw away—the sport’s first gold medal. Roberto Donna was born in Turin and often goes back to visit his family. But this time his mission was to cook for Katie Couric.
The Today show was being broadcast from the Piazza Castello in the center of Turin, and the Piedmont tourist board had invited Donna as spokesperson for the region’s cuisine. He’d cooked for Katie at his DC restaurant, Galileo, and even made her parents’ anniversary dinner. But to cook for Katie on the Today show—that’s a different matter.
He shifted around his cooking classes, Laboratorio reservations, countless appointments, and popular Galileo Grill lunches for five minutes with Katie. For a kitchen assistant, he’d call on Gianni Spegis, who’d worked with him in Washington and was now cooking just outside Turin.
On the long drive from Milan’s airport to Turin, Donna always takes time for a “Jean-Louis stop” at the first autogrill on the highway, continuing the tradition of trips with his friend Jean-Louis Palladin, who died of lung cancer in 2001. Early Thursday morning Donna took his first sip of Italian coffee and his first bite of mortadella on ciabatta and relaxed for a moment. He was home.
The next bite to eat was courtesy of NBC, which had a sort of permanent buffet in the ornate historic cafe behind its outdoor studio. The menu was a hit parade of Piedmont classics: bagna cauda, ravioli del plin, vitello tonnato, brasato al Barolo, and breadsticks from the town where Donna’s mother lives. He met with Spegis and plotted their Today menu—pretty much the same dishes he’d just eaten. Then Spegis set out to find a kitchen in which to execute Donna’s recipes.
It had been a long day without a real sit-down meal. Donna met his mother and his sister’s family for dinner at Cucco, one of the few Piedmont restaurants known for its seafood. Nevertheless, the family was loyal to meat, which meant a parade of tongue with green sauce, three kinds of beef tartare, two pastas, pot roast with Barolo, and meat fritto misto, any one of the courses sufficient for dinner.
More gorging followed, as Donna hit his favorite Piedmontese restaurants for meal after meal. The chef’s signature suggestion, when dealing with a happy occasion or a disappointment, was always “Let’s go have lunch.”
In Donna’s Turin, that’s nearly an all-day project. Sunday morning before he set out, there was coffee and a croissant at the Caffe Florio. Donna then ordered a tray of tiny hors d’oeuvre puffs and tartlets to take to his mother. The group drove to Mama’s apartment, where everyone sat around drinking aperitifs and polished off the tray of hors d’oeuvres. Finally, it was on to Cannon d’Oro in Cocconato, a village adjacent to Donna’s hometown. Lunch stretched 3½ hours. Donna was blissful over the house-made cotechino, a chopped pork sausage that oozes juices to flavor the mashed potatoes. There was so much else. By the time everyone had sampled budin—the local chocolate pudding—napoleon, and remaining trolley of cream cakes, we each figured we were $30 lighter and about five pounds heavier.
Tuesday. Donna was due on the Today set before 2:30. No chance of a proper lunch. When their time came, Donna and Couric glided through their five-minute filming like a pair of Olympic figure skaters. Donna tossed his ravioli del plin with sage, and Couric adores sage. They laughed at each other’s jokes, they finished at just the right moment. Donna passed out food to the audience, while Couric went over to meet Donna’s mother, who had been there for hours anticipating that moment.
The segment went so well that Couric told Donna she’d love to have him on again—in New York.
Donna was delighted. He reacted just as anyone would expect him to after a week of working up to this crucial five minutes.
“We haven’t had lunch,” he says. “We should go to lunch.”