Drop by Galileo at noon for one of the restaurant’s new “grill dates,” and among the treats on offer—which include, for five bucks apiece, a terrific roasted-pork-shoulder sandwich and a salty, crackly-topped hunk of pork ribs—is the sight of one of the city’s great chefs impersonating a short-order cook from behind the marble counter of his gleaming, state-of-the-art show kitchen.
“Is good to see everybody!” Roberto Donna calls out, waving people into the bustling kitchen. He leans across the counter solicitously. “What can I get you?”
There are no publicists lurking about the premises, and promotion has been remarkably light for what is, after all, a steal of a deal, but the reason the bread-baker-turned-celebrity-chef has chosen to get his hands dirty has less to do with his desire to minister to the downtown office workers than with image rehab.
Long criticized for expanding too much, too quickly—in the late ’80s, he presided over an empire of 13 restaurants, most of which flopped or were sold off—and for employing a restaurant staff that kowtows to the rich and famous and merely suffers the rest of us, Donna claims to have wised up. “I want,” he says, “to get on the good side of Washingtonians again. Regular Washingtonians.”
First he needs to get on the good side of the IRS again. Last month, according to the Washington Post, Donna filed for Chapter 11 reorganization; the chef owes the District more than $1 million in back taxes and penalties and is, all told, about $2.5 million in debt. Galileo will continue to operate as Donna attempts “to resolve his situation.”
“The more business we do,” he says, “the better for everybody.”
The chef insists the occasional grill dates are not a response to his financial troubles—in fact, the grill was launched a couple of months ago, before word of the debts surfaced—but suffice it to say that, in one way or another, Donna has been thinking of restitution for some time now.
Doling out sammies for the masses is only a part of the plan. A year and a half ago, Donna instituted a bar menu at lunchtime, with a short list of simple pastas and salads—“pantry food”—all priced around $8. This summer, he launched his osteria, a nighttime variation of the bar menu, with a dozen rib-sticking, rustic dishes, none over $10. The result is a hydra-headed restaurant, with five incarnations under a single roof: Il Laboratorio del Galileo for thrill-seeking gourmands, Galileo for fine dining, the osteria and bar menus, and now the grill.
To eat from the bar menu is to be reminded of the kind of place a lot of us thought we were getting when Donna opened his outposts a decade ago: unpretentious, reasonably priced, and full of the simple cooking he professes to love. A fettucini with veal ragu is just what you’d want from a restaurant with Donna’s imprimatur: a dish that, although expertly executed, feels somehow casual, tossed-off. Of the silken veal tonnato, dotted with capers and sprinkled with parsley, a friend exclaimed, “Who knew meat could be so refreshing?”
It’s hard to begrudge the relative disappointments, given the prices. Donna’s spinach-and-mascarpone pizza is a little softer than you might hope for, but you won’t find a medium pizza with as much character for that price anywhere else in the city. A cauliflower soup is less than dazzling, but it is smooth, and it leaves a nice, hammy residue on your tongue.
The biggest difference at night, perhaps, is that with the osteria menu, you can assemble a full meal if you want it, in the Italian manner: antipasto, pasta course, entree. The spaghetti carbonara manages to be both exceptionally rich and surpassingly light, more Italian than Italian-American. A plate of grilled shrimp delivers two kinds of pop: from the firm flesh and from the pungent accompanying tapenade. And, in this age of the double-digit glass, it’s nice to see a selection of interesting wines for five bucks and under.
As with the bar menu, you’re unlikely to stumble upon a dud of a dish, only a few that don’t sing quite so loudly. Pheasant with black olives and pine nuts is appropriately earthy, just too salty—and with too many soft, chewy nuts. Fusili with lamb ragu needed another day for the flavors in the sauce to reveal themselves; my leftovers were better than my dinner.
Still, if Donna hopes to make his place more user-friendly, he had better address his still-persistent service issues. Is any wait staff at any big-time restaurant in the city more consistently rude, lazy, and inattentive? For the moneyed regulars, of course, the red carpet is dutifully unrolled. But if you’re a regular Joe eating in the osteria and a large party shows up at the door, you can all but kiss your waiter goodbye.
And the seating area around the bar, which seems cutely casual from a distance, reveals itself to be a dreary, gloomy corner near a refrigerator. The lighting is dismal, the candles go unlighted, and the cast-iron patio furniture, which would be charming on a patio, is uncozy in an air-conditioned room.
And nobody in the restaurant gives the impression of caring about the relative ghetto of the bar. One Saturday night this summer, I listened as Sinatra’s version of “The Christmas Song” gave way to a stirring rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Finally, a hostess took action.
“Mario!” she barked. “What’s with the Christmas music?” The tune stopped mid-adoration.
Roberto! I wanted to shout. What’s with your staff?—Todd Kliman
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