New York is Donatella Arpaia’s domain when it comes to Italian cuisine with a message. Whether it is Zeppole, an amarena cherry-inspired dessert with ricotta fritters sitting pretty in almond gelato, or calamari enhanced with a lightly lemon-infused dipping sauce, the word is spreading about this diva of Italian dining.
“This is simple food made glamorous” Donatella said, as she smiled proudly at her gold lame pizza oven at her namesake restaurant at 184 Eighth Ave. in Chelsea as if it were family. She’s equally devoted to the other five culinary members of that family: the restaurants Anthos, Mia Dona, Kefi, Eos and the hip DBar.
How can one 36-year-old wonder woman who looks like Miss Italy, whether she is holding a frying pan wearing flashy ultra high heels (that’s her on the cover of her book, “Donatella Cooks”) or patrolling the soft opening of her latest restaurant, do it all?
“Each of my restaurants is an extension of my passion for food,” she said. “Grounded in rich family traditions, they are home.”
This is Neapolitan cuisine and her goal is to serve these authentic tastes in New York City without succumbing to cliches and finger-sized proportions of pasta.
A warmth emanates from her newest restaurant the moment guests arrive and are seated either at the bar or table. While the pizzas take center stage, there is a litany of classic dishes with southern Italian inflection. There’s a savory Lasagna de Carnevale (classic Neapolitan lasagna), spaghettini con ricci di mare (spaghetti with sea urchin, white wine and fennel) and, winning raves from diners the night I was there, Paccheri alla Genovese (a pasta dish with braised beef and sweet onion sugo and parmigiano reggiano). Donatella’s salads are legend: the chopped vegetable salad exudes gentle seasoning and farm freshness; the Mesclun salad with candied walnuts and pecorino provides a sweet send-off before a Diavola pizza-with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, pecorino, spicy salami and chili oil-lands in front of you.
Whereas dessert is often an afterthought at many Italian eateries, not so here. Donatella’s Sfogliatella has been known to bring even the most jaded diners to the verge of tears: we’re talking flaky pastry with fresh semolina ricotta cream, orange blossom and honey syrup. I’ve mentioned the cherry Zeppoli but right now the Stagionale Crostata (seasonal tart) features cherries too, and deliciously, along with soft cake, the crunch of pistachio and cool kiss of authentic gelato.
Fortunately the DBar is there (the two spaces are connected), so you can have your pizza or simply a glass of wine there as well. Narrow and dimly lit, it is the hip sister of the somewhat flashier namesake restaurant next door. Now that she seems to have to conquered New York from top to bottom, could Donatella have designs on Malibu next?
For the sake of great Italian cooking, which there can never be enough of, let’s hope so!
Pam Price’s newest book, “Day Trips from Los Angeles” is published by the Globe Pequot Press.