Donatella Arpaia, that is. You may have visited one of her many numerous restaurants, seen her sitting next to Jeffrey Steingarten as one of the judges on Iron Chef America or recognize her as the winner of Meatball Madness, beating out chefs like Andrew Carmellini. She returns to the New York Food and Wine Festival September 29th to defend her title. We caught up with her before her meatball battle and next big project: the birth of her baby! Read on to see what pregnant chefs crave and her favorite munchies in New York City.
The Daily Obsession: Legend has it that you used to be a corporate lawyer before going into food. How did you decide to make the switch and why? Were you wrestled with indecision?
Donatella Arpaia: I grew up in the restaurant business and my father and brother are both restaurateurs so it’s in my DNA, but from early on I was encouraged to be a lawyer. I enjoyed the study of law but hated the practice of it. At the time I was living in a small studio above my brotherls restaurant, Cellini on 54th st. I was grabbing a bite at the bar when I saw my brother needed help because his hostess didn’t show up I got up and pitched in. That was it! I knew at that moment I needed to change directions. I struggled a bit because I studied so hard and a lot was invested in my education, but really, I had no doubt about the change of course I was about to embark on. I never looked back!
TDO: For many people, pursuing a career in food is a dream—what advice would you give to them for success?
DA: Food is a wonderful and exciting ride but many people have only a very limited idea of what the reality of this industry is like. It’s hard ! I recommend they work in area of food they are interested in to get a really good taste of the reality of this industry. You must be extremely committed and passionate to succeed.
TDO: What surprised you about working in the food industry?
DA: How exciting, wonderful and awful it can be all at the same time. That it never gets easier – it’s like a puzzle every day. You need to adapt and grow constantly.
TDO: What is a typical day for you like, from morning to bedtime?
DA: Well, I am close to giving birth so my typical day has changed. Normally I wake up at 6 am, and make coffee and breakfast for husband and I – that’s our time together before he goes to the hospital to perform heart surgery. Then I usually work on my computer for a couple of hours responding to emails etc., I have weekly manager meetings at my restaurants and I try to spend “prime-time” hours on the floor of my restaurants as its important for my loyal customers to see me. I often have media appearances. Everyday is a little different which is what I love most about this business. There is the creative side of developing recipes to the business side of payroll financials, etc.
TDO: We hear congratulation is in order! First, as a winner of Meatball Madness and secondly an expectant mother. Apart from making your meatballs with love, what gave yours the edge for the win?
DA: Really great quality meat and restraint; many people over-season. I have a special slow-cooked ragu recipe that I use – it’s actually my mom’s, but I tweaked it a bit. I can’t give away my secret, but I can tell you it’s made with a lot of love and that the meatball themselves are nice and light, not heavy bombs.
TDO: What does a pregnant chef crave? Do you crave Ben & Jerry’s and chocolate cake at midnight like the rest of us? Or do your tastes run more exotic like foie gras and flavor foams?
DA: My cravings have changed vastly throughout the pregnancy. During my first trimester I couldn’t get enough citrus! I would eat tons of oranges every day. Throughout the entire pregnancy have had serious carb cravings… lots of pasta and pizza. Thank god for my restaurant!
TDO: If Ben & Jerry’s allowed you to make your own ice cream flavor, what would it be?
DA: I’m obsessed with coconut a really great coconut ice cream that’s not overly sweet – and perhaps add some macadamian nuts to it.
TDO: Apart from your own restaurants, what are your go-to restaurants and favorite munchies in the city?
DA: Grom ice cream, the Steak soba salad at Soba Nippon, Char-grilled artichokes at Houstons, Steamed pork buns at Joe Shanghai, burgers at JG Mellons
TDO: What is your favorite surprising pizza topping combination?
DA: With peaches in season my chef created a pizza with charred peaches and ricotta which I love! I’m surprised because I usually only like fruit on its own.
TDO: You’re stranded on a highway and the only places to eat are fast food. Where do you go and what do you get?
DA: I would go to McDonalds for French Fries and a Milkshake!
TDO: Quick—we have twenty minutes to make dinner a dinner for two and don’t know what to make. What should we make?
DA: Baked buffalo ricotta with char-grilled bread. I bake buffalo ricotta with the best quality extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and cherry tomatoes. Wrap into a tin foil purse and bake for ten minute.(recipe in her cookbook, “Donatella Cooks”) Then Bucatini Amatriciana, a zesty pancetta and tomato sauce that easy to make. And, of course a great bottle of red!
TDO: Football season is coming up! What’s an easy snack to bring to a football party?
DA: Hmm easy snack? I can’t show up with a bag of gold fish (like a guest did at a party I hosted last year). I am a foodie after all! I think I would make a baked ziti dish, people love it and to me it’s easy to make.
TDO: You’re known as much for your style as your culinary prowess. What are tips for looking good on camera?
DA: I’m lucky that I’m partners with Davide Torchio , celebrity hairstlyist and owner of Davide Torchio salon, so he does my hair and make up and is amazing. Also nude heels they elongate the legs!
TDO: What is your beauty routine? What are your favorite products?
DA: My hair is very fine so I love Davide torchio’s Meticulous Lift Thickening Lotion. I also treat myself to facials at LING . I love her skin care line! I force myself to drink a ton of water and a husband who is a triathlete, who encourages me to run and bike!