A Plum Position: Donna has dumped San Marzanos in favor of American plum tomatoes.
A Plum Position: Donna has dumped San Marzanos in favor of American plum tomatoes. Credit: Charles Steck

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Earlier this summer, Roberto Donna finally received Arlington County’s blessing to fire up his wood-burning pizza oven at Bebo Trattoria. The chef had waited nearly nine months to secure all the necessary permits to start serving up his thin, irregular Neapolitan-style rounds (Young & Hungry, “Pizza at Bebo: No Dough,” 1/26), and yet his pie fights may not be over. The Verace Pizza Napoletana Association (VPN), which certifies only those pizzamakers who follow Neapolitan traditions, could pose another challenge.

Why? Because Donna has decided to substitute American plum tomatoes for the sometimes hard-to-find (and expensive) San Marzano variety, which are grown and handpicked on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. At least that’s what the chef told me earlier this month when I first sampled his crisp, flavorful pies at Bebo.

But because I didn’t identify myself as a reporter during that meal, I knew I would have to confirm the information through official channels. That’s when I learned that Bebo’s admin staff wouldn’t mind treating me like a pie and throwing me in the hole, too.

Elizabeth Scott, Donna’s director of public relations and marketing, informed me that I needed to submit questions via e-mail. The chef, Scott said, had a restaurant to run and wouldn’t have time for a live interview. I dutifully submitted the questions and, two days later, received the clipped, mostly lifeless answers—each based, Scott said, on her consultations with Donna.

To the inquiry about pizza ingredients, Scott submitted this response: “[A]ll pizza toppings are typical of what one would find on a pizza in Italy, they are not Americanized.”

I smelled a gloss-over and wrote back to clarify: So was Donna using Italian or American canned plum tomatoes? The origin would likely make all the difference to the folks at VPN; true Neapolitan pies require ingredients exclusively from Italy.

Four minutes later, Scott wrote back: “Caught in the ‘heat’ of the moment and definitely off guard, Chef Donna was most likely thinking of a different product, as the flour and tomatoes are Italian.” I replied to say Donna was, by no means, caught off-guard; our informal conversation was, in fact, rather jovial. (Hell, he even trotted a huge bag of flour out of the kitchen for my inspection.) That’s when Scott stopped e-mailing and picked up the phone.

Our exchange quickly grew testy. At one point, Scott asked point blank if I was calling Donna a liar. No, I responded, if I’m calling anyone a liar, it’s you. Suddenly, the story took a different turn: Donna, she said, had indeed tested his pizza with the American-grown tomatoes but decided against altering the all-Italian approach. She even offered to send me the labels from the canned Italian tomatoes to prove her point.

Scott hoped her story had clarified everything; she said, more than once, that she just wanted to make sure that Bebo’s pizza was not “mischaracterized.” I took her comment as a threat that I could end up on Donna’s blog, which serves as the chef’s personal police agency to bust food critics for their crimes and misdemeanors. He launched the blog earlier this year in response to Todd Kliman’s critical review of Bebo in the Washingtonian.

Part of the blog’s purpose, Donna had written me via Scott, was to “ensure that journalists do their fact checks and that the facts are reported on in a truthful and objective manner, not vindictively or maliciously.”

Later that afternoon, the chef himself called to chat.

Scott, according to Donna, didn’t know that he had changed tomatoes because “I don’t keep her updated day-to-day on what I’m cooking.” Donna says he was indeed using American-grown Alta Cucina plum tomatoes, which are designed to be the U.S. version of San Marzanos. Donna made the change after a tasting in which 20 Italians—“Italians that just came here from Italy in the last six months”—had sampled the rejiggered pies; “all preferred these tomatoes,” he says.

Donna says his pies remain as Italian as anything back in Naples. “It does not change anything. It just makes the pizza better,” the chef says. Donna had not yet checked with VPN on what ingredients he must use—and what methods he must follow—to earn the official D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) stamp designating a Neapolitan pizza. But he believes that, aside from the tomatoes, he’s following all the other requirements.

“I’m sorry those tomatoes are better,” he says. “I’m not going to serve a product that is inferior when I can do it better using a different tomato.”

Donna still plans to submit his pizzas for certification to VPN. If his rounds are good enough for real, off-the-boat Italians, he figures, they should be good enough for VPN.

In the meantime, Donna might want to blog about someone who’s dishing out bad information on Bebo: his PR director.

Toque of the Town

At David Barigault’s last high-profile gig, as chef and co-owner of Le Pigalle near Dupont Circle, he was slapped around more than a detainee at Guantánamo Bay. The insults he suffered there were many and varied, from Tom Sietsema’s no-star review in the Washington Post (headline: “At Least the Water Is Cold…”) to the introduction of a chef-consultant who de-Frenchified Barigault’s menu and then bought out his share of the operation, eventually renamed Jack’s Restaurant and Bar (Young & Hungry, “Jack’s Can’t Cook,” 3/23).

“It was really tough,” Barigault told me this spring when he had retreated to a catering job at the Ronald Reagan Building following Sietsema’s 17th Street Massacre. “Even people who used to like the place, they didn’t come back. Can you imagine? I spoke to some customers and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you in a long time.’ [They said,] ‘I’m sorry, but to be honest with you, I read the article.’”

Barigault has finally emerged from his hibernation. The former Bistrot du Coin chef has been installed as the second-in-command at Montsouris, behind executive chef and co-owner Stephane Lezla, who splits his time between the bistro and its sister operation, Montmartre, on Capitol Hill. The position at the Dupont bistro became available when chef Sebastian Agez decided to quit and become a waiter at Belga Café, where he had worked previously as a server.

Lezla says he didn’t hesitate to hire Barigault, even if the chef might be considered damaged goods. “I know the guy from a long time before Tom Sietsema knew [him],” Lezla says. “And whatever happened to him is history.”

Barigault seems to have settled in nicely. I stopped by recently to sample the menu, which Lezla has tweaked since my review (Young & Hungry, “Mark of the Bistro,” 4/6). The oxtail croustillant is a rich, savory pastry stuffed with a mouthwatering combination of meat and mushrooms, and while the entrecôte béarnaise could use more char and salt, it still delivers the grill flavor underneath that tart, eggy blast of tarragon. Barigault, I’d venture, has found himself a good home.