Why Esquire’s John Mariani Chose Roberto Donna for Chef of the Year

“I took him at his word,” says the food writer of his controversial pick.

Roberto Donna in the kitchen at Al Dente. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

“He’s had real ups and downs,” food & travel correspondent John Mariani told his Esquire editor when first discussing his choice for the 2012 Chef of the Year. That’s putting it mildly. In fact, a year ago, the very idea that Roberto Donna would
receive the esteemed men’s magazine’s annual honor might have seemed like a bad joke.

Sure, Donna is one of the most talented toques to ever ladle out raviolini in a Washington kitchen—in his decades here he garnered lifelong fans and national accolades at a string of restaurants including the ambitious Galileo, his downtown flagship. But by the time he slunk away to Scottsdale, Arizona in early 2012—following the crash and burn of Galileo III on 14th Street—Donna owed, according to the Washington Post’s Tim Carman, “$1 million-plus . . . in back pay, unpaid taxes, legal fees, penalties, interest and damages.” (A former employee has even started a website asking Donna fans to pitch in on paying off his debts.)

A few months later, local food blogs sizzled with the news that Donna was back—this time helming the kitchen at a casual trattoria near American University owned by fast-casual mogul Hakan Ilhan. Opened in April as La Forchetta, the restaurant was right away answering questions about its logo—which, Eater DC pointed out, bore an uncanny resemblance to that of an Italian eatery in Caracas—and its name, which sounded a lot like La Fourchette, a well-established French restaurant in Adams Morgan. Then there was the matter of the pizza, which Ilhan claimed was better than that at 2 Amys. This led, inevitably and immediately, to unfavorable comparisons to the Cleveland Park favorite. In August, Ilhan held a contest to crowdsource a new name for the restaurant, but ultimately went with his own choice: Al Dente.

By any measure, it was a rocky start for a new restaurant, though reviews of Donna’s food have been favorable—La Forchetta, as it was then called, received two stars from both this magazine and the Washington Post. Still, the Esquire accolade was unexpected, to say the least. “Generally speaking, we look at the whole career,” says Mariani, whose former picks include LA long-timer John Sedler and Dominque Crenn of the lauded Luce in San Francisco. (One exception he mentions: Washington’s Barton Seaver—the 2009 chef of the year—who was then cooking at Blue Ridge on Wisconsin Avenue at the tender age of 30.) Mariani says he’s known Donna “since the Galileo days, when he was cooking Italian food unlike anyone else in Washington.” He says he waivered over including Al Dente in his scouting trip this year, but “I thought I’d pay homage to the guy.” What he encountered, he says, was Donna “working magic” in the kitchen to create “a true, authentic Italian meal—including gnocchi that made the ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ cliché true.”

In his write-up, Mariani makes no mention of Donna’s tax problems—though he does admit that the chef “had a habit of leaving restaurants before the paint dried.” The decision to leave out Donna’s legal woes was a conscious one—if he addressed the money troubles and court dates of every chef and restaurateur he covers, says Mariani, little space would remain to talk about food. Donna’s tendency to take off, however, did give him pause. But the controversial cook assured him he was staying put. “This is where I put my heart and soul,” Donna told the food writer. Says Mariani: “I took him at his word.”