Although I love to cook, running a restaurant would be about the last thing in the world I would ever choose to do. I reaffirmed this last night as we spent about 4 hours dining in front of the open kitchen at the latest rendition of Galileo’s.
This restaurant of Roberto Donna’s has had several previous lives, starting in a small space on P Street 26 years ago. The current reincarnation occupies space in what used to be the flagship Garfinckel’s store right near the White House. I realized as I stepped across the threshold that my mother had walked in that same space many times as an employee of that department store in the wartime 40’s.
We are fortunate to know someone who is in the Don Rockwell group, thus entitling us to eat at the new Galileo’s at a greatly discounted price. However, after all the mishaps of the evening, we might conclude we got exactly what we paid for or we might recognize that the restaurant has been open for a mere 5 days and be somewhat sympathetic.
We walked in the door or find we had no reservation on the book. Yes, I do mean an old fashioned reservation book. They have not introduced online reservations yet. The hostess, who just happened to be Roberto Donna’s lovely wife, quickly seated us near the bar and handed each of us a glass of prosecco while they set a table for us in the vicinity of the one we thought we had reserved. We wanted a view of the kitchen.
We were finally seated and handed the menu describing what would surely be a memorable meal. Our special deal entitled us to 4 courses BEFORE dessert. So I ordered:
Capesante: Sauteed sea scallops atop yellow and black polenta, sauteed lobster mushrooms, cream sauce
Taglierini Neri All’Aragosta: Black taglierini served in a lobster cream sauce and butter poached Maine lobster
Raviolini del Pfin: Small “pinched” ravioli filled with three meats and served in veal jus, butter, sage
Filetto di Vitello: Porcini powder dusted and sauteed Catelli veal filet medallions, roasted porcini mushrooms, braised cipollini, Taleggio cheese sauce and veal jus
There’s a happy rhythm to food service. You never want to feel like you are being rushed through a meal so your table can be re-used for another seating. On the other hand, it is nice when the food comes out of the kitchen without huge gaps in between courses. Last night was the latter extreme.
The first course rolled out after about 45 minutes without a problem. But then after a lengthy break, they attempted to serve us someone else’s food. By this time there was a certain amount of unrest in the kitchen and occasional bursts of Italian. It was clear the production line still needed some fine tuning. Roberto Donna was in middle of things the entire time, but some of the others kitchen staff looked as though they hadn’t completely figured out their roles.
With the exception of being served the wrong ravioli (or so I thought), my food was all unquestionably delicious and beautifully presented. My dining companions complained of their food being cold, but either mine wasn’t or it didn’t bother me.
We had several visits during the course of the evening from people in high places, apologizing for the inferior service. In addition to feeding those of us in the main dining room, apparently there was a private party upstairs. It was obvious that they simply hadn’t worked out a lot of the details yet.
My dessert -- a thin slice of chocolate torte with bits of rock salt on top -- was perhaps the highlight of the evening. As we polished off the last bite of dessert and drained our espresso cups, we realized that we had been there for 4 hours. You could call that a leisurely meal or an interminable evening.
I’m fairly sure Roberto Donna will make a go of this restaurant, located in the belly of the DC powerhouse. The rich and famous will have lunch there and entrust their fancy cars to the valet service while they have dinner. With a little time he will be turning out the same spectacular food with the proper restaurant rhythm.
Will I eat there again? Maybe for a special occasion. But probably never the 4-course menu because it is fairly pricy.
It was a good reminder that I don’t belong in the food industry. They are very brave to have an open kitchen where nothing is a secret, especially if you know Italian!
(The photo is from 1999, showing a much younger Roberta Donna, who is now 49.)