Chef Spotlight: Interview with Donatella Arpaia

The “Meatball Queen” Gives Us Some Delicious Insight

Donatella ArpaiaDonatella Arpaia’s most vivid childhood memories include spending the summers on her family’s Italian olive oil farm, jarring homemade sauce, and standing on a stool to peer up at the stove learning her family recipes. An understanding and appreciation for quality and bringing people together grew from there and is a practice she continues to exercise at her restaurants today.

Her name has been linked to a string of successful restaurants: Davidburke & Donatella, Anthos, and Kefi. Her most recent project, Prova Pizzabar, is a new concept for the chef and head judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and in our conversation with Donatella she explains why it works and offers her suggestions on a dish and drink pairing this winter.

You grew up in a family of restaurateurs with your father and your brother. What are some of the best lessons you learned from watching them on practices to keep in terms of your own business?

My father, was like the immigrant success story. He started as a busboy, worked his way up. I was always very mindful when I became an owner because I didn’t work my way up through the ranks. I was a lawyer and then I came in reverse, to really remember and value every person that works for you, to pay them on time, to know everyone’s name, to treat everyone with the same respect you would treat anyone else.

I like to build familiar relationships with the people that I work with and really respect that. That’s something great that I learned from both my father and my brother and a really wonderful sense of hospitality that I was known for when I first started. I think I got it from them.

The one thing that deferred is, I think that I was on the cusp of the whole new…I understood the importance of marketing and media and that was something that I really worked on which was very different from them.

I think that especially in this industry, especially in the most competitive market in the world, in New York it’s not enough just to have great food and great service. You constantly have to keep up in everything that you do and get better at it.

In New York, you have no choice but to. If you’re staying the same you’re falling behind.
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Your newest place, Prova Pizzabar, is a detour, would you say, from your background in fine food? How did you find yourself going this direction?

It’s been in the works for a few years behind the scenes. I think it’s a reflection of my life and the direction it took, and I’ve been doing fine dining for a long time, and I was known as the personality and people came for me. People came to see me just as much as the restaurant because of the personal attention I gave. I did it, I loved it, no one could be better at it, but I was done. When you’re done with something, you really do need to move in a different direction, and simultaneously I got married and had a child and my focus shifted.

I felt that there was a need for a pizza concept and finding those old-school classic originals like lasagna. Like my meatballs but executed at a high level but in a casual fast-paced environment. I’ve been studying this for a while because my goal is to take this brand across the country. I’m going big. Go big or go home.

If someone were coming in on a snowy day in the winter, what would be your recommendation for what to order at Prova, and what would be paired to drink with it?

You have to order my meatballs as soon as you sit down because that’s a great starter for a group of people. Spicy or regular. Then I would say my spaghetti Piennolo, which is the Piennolo tomatoes; it’s your classic spaghetti with tomato sauce except this is hand-cut spaghetti and the tomatoes are grown on the mountains of Mount Vesuvius, so the tomatoes are really sweet and delicious. Of course a pie. Which pie? The Diabla is with a spicy soppressata if you like heat, and I would recommend that because it’s cold outside. As for a drink, we have a full bar, but we’re actually working on a nice hot punch cocktail in pitchers to serve.

Your meatballs, you are the meatball queen. How did you earn that reputation?

I obviously grew up in an Italian home and meatballs are an obsession. I submitted my meatballs to the New York City Food & Wine Festival Meatball Madness. I beat out all the top chefs from Manhattan, and then I did it
two years in a row, which no one has ever done, with my humble recipe based on my mother and grandmother’s recipe.

They’re pretty awesome. I have high-quality meat, all my special fresh herbs and spices, and people love it. That’s how I’ve become known as the meatball queen.
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If someone were trying to replicate your meatballs at home, what would you say is the thing that they need to be most mindful of? What is most important?

It’s a great question. I think several things. Fresh herbs, fresh garlic. No dried herbs and spices. That’s key. High-quality ground meat. The ground meat is not expensive, so go for high-premium quality meat; not all ground meat is the same. I prefer veal, but a mixture of veal, beef, pork. People do different mixtures.

When they’re mixing the meatballs, you have to mix it by hand, and I don’t think people mix it enough. It really needs to be well blended, and then you must fry your meatballs. No baking in my home. Italians, we fry our meatballs. I’m sorry, I believe that it creates the golden crust, it seals in the juices, and I don’t think there’s anything better than a fried meatball.

You’ve been a competitor. That’s how you earned the title as the Meatball Queen. But you’re also familiar with being on the other side of the table as a judge on Iron Chef. What is your criteria for critique, and is there a moment from the show that stands out the most to you?

I think that being a lawyer trained me to be impartial. I’ve judged so many times, often even with celebrities. They say, “How do you judge it if you don’t like something?” It’s not about my personal likes and dislikes. I judge it by technique, whether something is well executed or not. I could eat like a pizza, but if it’s not executed well I’m going to tell you. Presentation because we eat with our eyes first, and most importantly it has to taste good at the end of the day. It could be beautiful, it could be unique, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not good.

I would say my most memorable moment on Iron Chef, man, there were so many. I’m a huge fan and friend of Bobby’s [Flay], and I judged him a lot. He went to Italy one summer, so he started playing with a lot of Italian food, and he would cook Italian food for me.

He made one of the best linguini and clam sauces I ever had, especially from an Irish boy. I was impressed. I have a very attuned palate and I was like, “But Bobby, you did burn the garlic a little.” He’s like, “I knew you were going to say that.”

Being a judge, you give your criticism but you also give advice. Someone trying to break into this business, especially in New York, what would be your advice that you would give them?

It’s not enough that you know how to cook. Some people say, “I know how to cook, I can open up a great concept.” It is a business and they can’t forget that first, so they have to make sure they’re adequately funded, that they have a business plan in place. It’s not the sexy part of it, but it’s the part that’s going to keep you open.

You really, really have to love what you’re doing to be successful in the restaurant; otherwise, you will fail because it’s that hard.

Prova Pizzabar_3Now, on the other side of that, if you want to just go out and enjoy a good meal, what should we look for?

A comfortable atmosphere where I’m treated well. We have the option to go anywhere we want in New York City, so I think the environment is really important for look and design and feel of the place. It doesn’t have to be overly designed; you just have to feel good. Cleanliness, a sense of service, great food, good drinks.

What is something to tell to everyone, about what they’re going to expect when they come into one of your restaurants?

I hope they can expect a real commitment to the quality of ingredients that I source. I’m really committed to really bringing the best quality ingredients to them and a great sense of hospitality and service.