Go to a restaurant known for its celebrity chef, and chances are, they aren’t even in the building. If they are, it’s still unlikely that you’ll catch a glimpse of them. But at Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano in Vienna, Roberto Donna (the James Beard Award–winning chef famous for the now-shuttered hotspot
Galileo) embraces his public.
“People love to see Roberto out on the dining room floor,” his wife and the restaurant’s sole owner, Nancy Sabbagh, says.
“I want to bring back the guéridon service because it’s disappeared,” says Donna, using the French term for the serving cart that he parks in front of the tables of eager guests.
The presentational appeal of that approach is demonstrated by an Amish chicken that Donna wheels out whole — as in, blank-eyes-still-staring, fierce-looking-talons-intact (though curled from the heat of the oven) whole. The chef carves the plump bird, giving a play-by-play as he pours creamy mushroom sauce over the plate. He leaves each member of a dining couple half of the chicken’s head, instructing them on how to eat the brain, if they so choose.
There’s an element of theater to any guéridon service, but given the mom-and-pop vibes of the restaurant, it’s just as easy to think of it as Donna and Sabbagh simply entertaining personal guests. After all, they say that many of their regulars at Roberto’s have followed them since Donna’s Galileo days.
The Turin, Italy, native won his James Beard Foundation Award in 1996 for the DC restaurant inextricably linked with his legacy. He closed it a decade later, part of a rough new millennium that saw him shutter a dozen restaurants. One of them, Bebo Trattoria in Arlington, landed the celebrity chef in hot water that included a half-million dollars in rent default and a federal lawsuit that accused him of wage and labor violations. He filed for bankruptcy in 2016.
Now, his days of chasing fame are over. “An award when you’re young is good; now we’re leaving space for the young people,” says Donna. “No more awards. We just want to be at peace and show people that we love them here in Vienna. We just cook for people. It’s fun.”
The “we” is a close-knit team that’s been with Donna for years. Besides him and Sabbagh, there’s general manager Dimitri Papahajidis “an extension of the Donna family,” says Sabbagh. “Guardian angel,” Karen Shannon, as described by Sabbagh, has been with the pair for more than 20 years, too, and is always offering a “buona sera” or a “grazie mille” as she and Papahajidis patrol the dining room, making sure each guest is satisfied.
On that front, I wish I could say that the $75 chicken is a revelation. It isn’t. The chicken’s skin isn’t soggy, but it isn’t crisp, either, a situation not helped by the robustly earthy sauce on top. The breast is a tad dry, though the leg melts as moistly as it should.
But for those willing to pay a premium for contact with a culinary legend, it may still be worth it. The rest of the plate comes closer to the heights one might hope for. Grilled asparagus and tangy braised radicchio betray just the right amount of vegetal crunch. A slice of crisp-cornered potato pavé is indulgently buttery, the result of some cream-on-cream action thanks to the sauce that floods the plate.
Overall, Shannon and Papahajidis watch over some happy diners, in spite of the culinary inconsistencies. I am easily captivated by shiny objects and by an excellent bread basket. Roberto’s has both. A Chihuly chandelier on loan from Sabbagh’s mother is the centerpiece of the main dining room. The star billing in the bread basket belongs to the pane sfogliato, a cheesy roll whose center falls somewhere between Brazilian pão de queijo and a popover, but with a crusty exterior. You will want more, though there’s also a wealth of lightly salty, wavy grissini (breadsticks) and slabs of moist, rosemary-flavored focaccia.
It would be a momentous feat for the rest of the meal to live up to the impact of the complimentary carbs, and for the most part, it doesn’t. Stuffed squash blossoms, intended to be a study in refinement, much like the flower itself, are obscured by an armor of batter thick enough to belong to a General Tso’s chicken order at a heavy-handed takeout joint. The hot ricotta that oozes from within is an unpalatable addition to the greasy breading. As a result, lighter elements like a pea puree with leafy greens resting on top get lost in the shuffle. A veal New York strip, though cooked to medium-rare perfection, is peppered so liberally that its Marsala reduction disappears on the tongue.
Donna’s kitchen is at its best crafting basics like the bread and well-formed pasta. Fat pappardelle noodles slip and slither around a fork with lascivious élan. Gnocchi are like clouds, tied to the plate only by their heavy cheese-and-walnut sauce.
But even the near-perfect pasta is let down by other components. The carrot pappardelle is a strange conclave of mismatched parts — a flaky chunk of dorade here, a length of Broccolini there — that never quite mesh. The prosciutto atop the gnocchi, billed as crispy, is in practice simply stiff and chewy.
Perhaps the desserts are most illustrative of what doesn’t work for me about Roberto’s. Despite a price tag of $12, they’re little more than an amuse bouche. The chocolate mousse, made with 70 percent single-origin Cordillera chocolate, is an intense delight, but just for a few bites. The simply named strawberry-rhubarb dome offers a show as a staffer pours warm strawberry sauce over the white chocolate dome, melting it, but what’s left is a few slices of fresh strawberries and a pile of crunchy cinnamon crumble.
Guests will get a warm welcome and a fond farewell at Roberto’s. This is assured. But what happens in between shows that the restaurant puts well-meaning hospitality over memorable cuisine. Yes, Donna, Sabbagh, and their team are having fun. You probably will, too. But perhaps it is best to leave an award-worthy meal to a still-hungry unknown.
Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano
See This: Real Chihuly glass and Venetian masks bring color to a pair of dining rooms. Look for at least a cameo by Donna himself, recognizable by his brightly hued spectacles.
Eat This: Carrot pappardelle, Amish chicken for two, chocolate mousse
Open for dinner, Monday through Saturday
144 Church St. NW, Vienna
This story originally ran in our August issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.