In the Kitchen: Donatella Arpaia

By Fabiana Santana

For the second coming of Mia Dona, Donatella decided to get down and dirty in the kitchen. The recipes are all hers and she spent countless hours in the kitchen teaching her cooks the recipes of her childhood.

“My father was born in Naples, and my mother is from a small town outside of Puglia. And since my dad worked, my mom raised us on her food.“ She jokes that even though her father owned restaurants (the biz is obviously in the blood), her mother still ate at home. “She would always have something to say about the food in the restaurants. She knows what she wants. So this time, with this restaurant, I am giving it to her.”

Donatella’s mother came to America from Italy when she was just 13 years old. “She came for better opportunities but she held on to her traditions through her food. I didn’t have butter until I sent to college in 18. Before that, it was olive oil only.”

Donatella describes the cuisine of Puglia as “cucina povera” – cooking of the poor. It requires no bells and whistles, just authentic, good quality ingredients. “It is also a cuisine of women. It is what Italian women cooked for their family with what was available, so not a lot of professional chefs really know it and there are not a lot of cookbooks that focus on it. Pugliese cuisine is an oral tradition.”

The restaurant is not only an ode to her roots, but to her mother as well, who helped Donatella learn not just about the ingredients in the food, but the meaning of food as well.

“My mother and aunts come into the kitchen with me a lot to show me how it is done. We probably spent a month straight in the kitchen together. I gained a new appreciation of what it is like to cook in a restaurant kitchen and a new appreciation for my mother, too. It was a great bonding experience for us. She got to come into my world a little bit and that was special. In the end, it is all about returning to what you love – food and family. That is what Mia Dona is about and I want to share that with everyone.”

The new Mia Dona is much more casual than the its previous incarnation. Rustic old wooden tables are set against beige banquettes and white washed exposed brick walls display vintage kitchen spoons and utensils proudly. Donatella made the decision to lower prices to lend it self to the current economy, but vows that the purity of ingredients wont be compromised. “Puglia is a region that is rich with high quality ingredients that don’t need a lot of fuss. It’s very pure food and the recipes reflect that.”

Donatella not only hopes to celebrate Pugliese cooking at Mia Dona, but she also aims to close the gap in the literary world as well. Her first cookbook Cooking in Heels, to be published by Rodale in 2010, will showcases her diverse talents accrued over years in the industry and will offer busy women easier versions of challenging recipes. But her second will focus on Puglia. “I’ve been collecting my mother and aunts recipes for years. This book will be about them.”

Focusing on her heritage was something she has always wanted to do. “Through different years I have opened restaurants and I always had it in my mind to do this, this kind of food. And sometimes my chefs didn’t feel the same way.”

Ever the perfectionist, Donatella demands the best from her kitchen. “I get frustrated because I want it to be as authentic as possible – the way my mother cooked for me. Not modified or interpreted. The Pugliese people have been doing it for 200 years this way, I don’t want to be the one who messes it up.”

Donatella’s mom visits her restaurant often, and this time, she has no complains. “She is mama in here. To the customers and the staff. And she loves the food. “ But don’t be surprised if Mama decides to take to the kitchen to do things her way every once in a while.

“No one can mess with my mom’s cooking.”

Donatella’s Sunday Ragu and Mom’s Meatball Recipe

Visit Donatella at Mia Dona, 206 East 58th Street, (212) 750-8170 and at her other NYC restaurants, Anthos (36 West 52nd Street; New York, NY 10019; 212.582.690) and Kefi (505 Columbus Avenue; New York, NY 10024; 212.873.0205).
Her first restaurant outside of New York, Eos, is in the hot Viceroy Hotel in Miami Beach (485 Brickell Avenue; Miami FL, 33121; 305.503.4400).