An Opulent October Piedmontese Dinner
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
Chef Roberto Donna thrilled the Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC with a delivered seven-course Piedmontese dinner on October 17, 2020. From a welcome cocktail to biscotti Piemontesi, the chef’s creativity and talent were on full display with each course, enabling members to enjoy a truly opulent fine-dining experience in their own homes.
Chef Donna is a native of Turin, in the heart of the Piedmont in northwest Italy. He began cooking when he was five years old at the restaurant next door to his home, enrolled in culinary school in Italy when he was 13, and came to the U.S. at the age of 19. Through the decades, he led a series of acclaimed Italian restaurants in Washington. His accolades and awards are numerous: In 1996 the James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic, and in 1997, Wine Spectator named his Galileo restaurant one of the 10 best Italian restaurants in the country. The Italian government awarded him the Insegna del Ristorante Italiano, in recognition of serving the best authentic Italian food outside Italy. Esquire magazine named him Chef of the Year in 2012. He even defeated Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America in 2006. The bailliage was indeed honored to have one of the most renowned chefs in the country create a dinner exclusively for us.
During the afternoon before the event, Chef Donna or his wife, Nancy, delivered the evening’s culinary extravaganza to more than 30 participants at 20 homes throughout the Washington region. The box contained all the elements of the dinner, each individually packaged and labeled by course. Detailed heating and serving instructions written by the chef and his wife were included to guide participants through creating their own opulent Piedmontese dinner.
The evening began with members, guests, and Chef Donna gathering on Zoom with a traditional Italian cocktail, Il Cardinale, a refreshing blend of Campari, gin, and Cinzano dry vermouth. Chef Donna even included a slice of orange to garnish the drink along with a crusty roll and artichoke purée for confrères to enjoy while sipping their cocktail and catching up with each other.
Bertrand de Boutray, the Bailli Délégué des États-Unis, joined the Zoom session from his home in Seattle. Although long-distance logistics prevented “B de B” from enjoying dinner with us, he complemented the chef on the extraordinary menu. He commended Bailli Judy Mazza for her leadership in keeping the bailliage active during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and noted that even over Zoom, he could feel the spirit of the Chaîne prevailing. As Judy offered a toast to our national president, all raised their glass and proclaimed “Vive la Chaîne!”
With appetites whetted, Chef Donna introduced the dinner’s first course, Terrina de Bollito Misto. This terrine featured sweetbreads, veal tongue, beef shank, and beef breast, all set in aspic and wrapped in cabbage. The chef explained that the gelatin for the aspic came from the beef shank. Three sauces complemented the sophisticated terrine: Salsa verde was anchovies, garlic, parsley, and vinegar puréed with a little bread (for texture) and olive oil; salsa al creen featured horseradish with mustard; and mostarda di cremora was mixed fruit cooked in syrup and mustard. A garnish of gherkins completed presentation. The chef encouraged everyone to try various combinations of the meats and the sauces to find their favorite pairings. He explained that traditionally this dish, consisting of numerous cuts of meat, is served in the fall and winter hot as a stew that resembles the French pot-au-feu. His adaptation of it as a terrine was a feast for the eyes and the palate.
Chef Donna next offered a luxurious and elegantly presented course– an eggshell filled with foie gras custard. The flawlessly executed custard incorporated reduced port wine, cream, egg yolks, and foie gras and was topped with a brunoise of apples sautéed in butter with salt and pepper. As with each course, the chef provided detailed directions on how to reheat the dish. Using a portion of an egg carton to hold the egg in a water bath, participants gently heated the custard in a 250° ovenenough to warm it, but not overcook it. The result was a decadent, velvety custard, wonderfully accented by the tart counterpoint of the apples.
A Piedmontese chestnut soup was next. The soup included duck stock, caramelized onions, and pancetta, blended until smooth. To serve it, diners placed porcini (prepared with duck gizzard that had been cooked with port), duck sausage (made by the chef with duck breast, duck fat, and a bit of foie gras), guanciale (bacon from the pork cheek rather than belly), and an onion flan tarta in a soup bowl. They then poured the soup to complete the composition. The result was an amazing melding of texture and flavors that lingered on the delighted palate.
Chef Donna’s pasta course was spectacular. His hand-cut egg yolk tagliarini was made with 42 egg yolks (yes, 42!) per kilo (2.2 pounds) of flour and a little salt. The chef had participants cook the pasta for just two minutes, to a perfect al dente. Served with a flavorful white rabbit ragú and a generous sprinkle of Vacca Rossa Parmagiano Reggiano, this dish was phenomenal. The chef shared that the rabbits for the ragu were raised nearby, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The cheese is made from the milk of the vacca rossa (red cow) which is particularly well suited to cheese making thanks to its distinctive casein, the essential protein in the cheesemaking process. Unlike regular Parmigiana Reggiano, which is aged for 12 months, the vacca ross variety is aged for at least 24 months.
Next was a sea scallop with black truffle and spinach baked in puff pastry and served with a black truffle sauce. Baked to a golden brown, the flakey pastry enrobed a succulent jumbo sea scallop made all the more delicious by layers of fresh spinach and generous amounts of truffle.
The evening’s final savory course was roasted veal tenderloin with finanziera sauce. The chef had seasoned and seared the tenderloin and had diners finish it to a beautiful medium-rare in their own ovens. The accompanying finanziera sauce was the chef’s interpretation of one of the classics of the Piedmont. Originating in the 18th century, finanziera was then a poor man’s dish – a stew using the less noble parts of animals. Classically, it can be served numerous ways, for example, over rice or as an accompaniment to risotto. Chef Donna’s version as a sauce to accompany the veal featured delicacies of offal and other rarely seen parts – duck tongue, heart, liver, gizzard, and testicle, along with sweetbreads and rabbit liver. (The chef explained that the duck parts were easily obtained from farms in Pennsylvania, but noted that cockscomb is unavailable these days as it is used in pharmaceuticals, and the spinal cord of cows cannot be used due to mad cow disease.) To make the sauce, the chef chopped all the ingredients and cooked them in white wine with black pepper and bay leaf. He then sautéed everything and finished the sauce with Marsala wine, gherkins, and touch of vinegar.
Through the dinner, members and guests enjoyed Do ut Des 2013 from Fattoria Carbineta Fontalpino in the heart of Tuscany. The winery has been owned by the Cresti family since the 1960s. Today, brother and sister Giola and Filippo Cresti are the owners, with Giola the winemaker and Filippo overseeing the vineyards. This wine is a blend of sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, creating a rich and complex flavor profile – ample ripe fruit along with sweet spices, hints of cocoa, coffee, and tobacco, plus distinct minerality and tannins. These many nuances enabled the wine to pair nicely across the full range of Chef Donna’s cuisine.
Dessert began with a mission fig tart. The figs were caramelized and baked with a crispy and flakey crust. An ethereal mascarpone mousse and a drizzle of port wine caramel sauce completed this indulgent composition. The second dessert was baba, sponge cake soaked in sugar syrup and rum that is a specialty of Naples. A bit of the mousse and caramel sauce added layers of flavor to the baba.
Chef Donna had a selection of final sweets for the bailliage. His biscotti Piemontese were presented in a delicate, ribbon-tied package that his wife had made. These mignardise included hazelnuts with chocolate, polenta cake, and hazelnut meringue.
While we were unable to gather in person, Chef Donna gave us a most welcome opportunity to enjoy a spectacular world-class a dinner at home and learn more about the cuisine of the Piedmont. As the evening concluded, Bailli Judy Mazza presented the chef (virtually) with a Chaîne plate to thank him for his work in creating this extraordinary menu for the bailliage. She spoke for everyone when she commented, “This dinner has just been fantastic. You can tell when someone cooks with love. You can tell that. You can taste it with every bite.”
For those eager to experience Chef Donna’s cuisine again, residents of the Washington area can enjoy it anytime they like. Each week the chef prepares five days of freezer-friendly three course meals that can be picked up or delivered. His website – www.ChefRobertoDonna.com – lists the tempting menus and provides detail on how to order.