I have big a huge fan of culinary icon Donatella Arpaia for quite some time now, dating several years back as I experienced her restaurant David Burke & Donatella back in my early 20’s. Her food impressed me on a multitude of levels, however as I was further enamored with this charismatic individual as her tenacity and drive in a male-dominated industry just shows what an absolutely successful badass she has become thirty years into her career.
I became reacquainted with Donatella due to the opening of her restaurant Prova Pizzabar, nestled downstairs in Grand Central Station. It was here where I remembered just how much I enjoyed her cooking, but I wanted to know about her even more as I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who was an amazing chef and was curious to know what her experience has been in the industry and how she feels about her career now.
I sat down with Donatella Arpaia (who is also the current brand ambassador for Galbani Cheese) at Prova Pizzabar over the weekend, where we broke bread (or in this case, one of her special pizza pies), and discussed her early career transitions from a lawyer to a major force in the culinary industry, how she dealt with the brutal sexism within it, her favorite celebrity that has ever stopped by one of her restaurants, and what her exciting plans are for the future. Take a look.
You were going to be a lawyer and then transitioned out of that to enter the culinary field. Why did you make that change?
I am a lawyer! I went to law school, I graduated, studied for the bar and passed the bar the first time. I practiced for about four months and then I quit. What shifted for me was that I grew up in the restaurant business. My crib was next to the dish-washing station at my dad’s first restaurant, so I was surrounded by it. My summers were spent in Italy surrounded by food, we’re a food family, it’s what we do, it’s what we talk about, it’s who we are.
My father did not want me to go into the restaurant business because it was very different back then. This was before the Food Network, before chefs were celebrities, and he said it was a very difficult life and he wanted his daughter to be a lawyer or doctor like most immigrants want for their children because that’s the American dream.
Then I became a lawyer as an adult, and was like “This kind of sucks, I don’t want to do this, I’m not passionate about.” I told my dad, quit, then opened up my first restaurant 8 months later called Bellini on 52nd street, and that was the start of my life as a restaurateur.
Speaking of Bellini, what was the process like to open your first ever restaurant?
It was really hard. I think that I was 26 and as much as I grew up in the restaurant business… I never owned it. My friends were still post-college and partying, and I was terrified. It was a mediocre location of a formerly failed restaurant, and I really struggled in the beginning.
Two things definitely helped me stand out, because I didn’t have a budget or marketing or anything. I was on 52nd between 3rd and 2nd and we were surrounded by hotels. Back then, a lot people would pay concierges per day, people don’t realize that. So I became friends with them, I baked stuff for them, and every customer that came in got a handwritten note from me.
Number two, I told my dad that we shouldn’t sere Italian food that’s in all these restaurants, we should serve the food that we eat at home. Back then, they didn’t have Broccoli Rabe or Burrata on the menus, these ingredients were simply not included, and now they’re huge. I was the first one to start doing that, and the critics started to notice that I was doing authentic Neapolitan cuisine. My Dad was like “They are not going to eat it, they are going to ask for Caprese!”, and I’m like “Dad, they will eat it!” When the critics wrote about it, the customers came in because they were educated, and now they had permission to discover that this new version of mozzarella is much more unctuous than rubbery, old, bad mozzarella.
For my second restaurant, I kind of wanted to break away from my Italian-ness. I did David Burke & Donatella, which really put me on the map. It was a massive success, almost too quickly for me. David was a big star at the time, he was more corporate environment, I was more mom & pop. Then, many restaurants came after that like Anthos. I started doing little food TV and local stations just to get people in the door, then a Food Network producer saw me and invited me onto Iron Chef and that was the beginning of a whole other career that I never anticipated. What I love about the culinary industry is that there are so many different avenues to go into as food.
The culinary industry itself has an unfortunate reputation for being very sexist. How did you deal with that at the beginning of your career?
Back then, the biggest thing they talked about was my appearance. Like Zagat, which was huge back in the day, said “go in and see the hot owner,” which was printed in their first review of my restaurant. Critics would discuss me and my appearance by saying things like “she doesn’t look like she does on TV,” as opposed to what I was doing cooking wise. When Anthos got a Michelin star and was doing well, the conversation started to change to how well I was doing as opposed to my appearance. I never really let any of that get to me, I had blinders on. I never thought I could do it even though I was the only woman at that time. I was very driven to succeed and to simply put out good food for everyone to try.
When all this stuff started coming out regarding the #metoo movement in Hollywood, I can say that I was approached constantly in relation to that. I had a strong Neapolitan father who gave me a strong sense of self, and no matter who came by, and I could tell STORIES and what they would say, if a bullet was coming at me I just didn’t care who it was. You could be a billionaire or not, I just didn’t have time for you. I have a strong sense of self, not saying that these girls don’t, I just think that they felt they didn’t have the power. I just felt like no one would mess with me regardless of what the consequences were.
You’ve opened some phenomenal restaurants here in Manhattan. Do you have a favorite out of all of them?
I mean, Bellini was my first so there is sentimental value there. There was something very special, however, about David Burke & Donatella. I just had lunch with David the other day and we talked about just how incredible that time was and the energy in there was just perfect. It was perfect every night, the food was exciting, with me running the front and him in the back, and it was really such a special place.
I really am happy right now about Prova Pizzabar. I feel like I’ve graduated, it’s my first causal dining so its different and I’m expanding now. Building a brand is interesting, and I feel like I’m in a place that’s so good. My partners are great plus I have all control which is also great! Ha. I’m really proud of the product we’ve created. The pizza is so unique and different, and I’m excited about taking that food across the country and making that accessible to everybody.
Do you have a favorite celebrity or person that has come into one of your restaurants?
So many celebrities came into David Burke & Donatella, but my favorite, and he was a regular there, was Walter Cronkite. He used to come with his wife and always order our chocolate ice cream. He was also such an old-fashioned reporter as I would see him with his little spiral notebook and memo pad.
When Crain’s 40 Under 40 came out, I was featured in it, I was 32 at the time. He called me up one day and said “Dear, did you know that you were in Crain’s 40 Under 40? I’m so proud of you, do you think you’ll still have a table for me?” And I said back to him, “You’re the most trusted man in America, yes!” He was just so humble and kind. What I loved about him was there are people you look up to for so many years, and he truly lived up to what his reputation was.
What else do you have coming up?
Because I am the brand ambassador for Galbani cheese, I’m heading to Las Vegas for their Pizza Convention in a couple of weeks. I’m going to be doing a lot of demos there, and I’m very excited about Galbani because it’s a global company so I’ll be doing a lot of content for them.
Now that Iron Chef is back, I’m doing episodes of Iron Chef America again, so a lot of food television. I’m also looking at locations in Miami, so I’ll be spending a lot of time there.
In conclusion, because what you’ve done is follow your passion. What advice would you give to someone who wants to jump off the deep end and do something that they are passionate about that may not be so lucrative or successful from the jump?
I constantly get asked this question, because I was a career changer too. I could never see myself doing something that I wasn’t passionate about. I’m a little hard on the women, there’s “no crying in baseball” but you have to follow your passion. Women don’t realize how much power they have, and its ours to take If only we grab hold of it. And to be kind, there’s no reason to be mean. I just don’t have time for that.
For more information on Donatella Arpaia, please check out her official website.