Donna's is the new Italian-American addition to Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine's growing empire.
Typically, the opening of an Italian-American restaurant would draw disinterested yawns. But Donna's is not typical. Donna's to my knowledge is the first time a talented, top local chef has headed the kitchen of an Italian-American joint. Chef Nick Ruscitto is the brain behind Peck's Arcade, which is arguably one of the best restaurants in the Capital District. He's left his post at Peck's and moved about a mile southeast to head the kitchen at Donna's. And it's a big deal.
I'm not Italian, but my step-father (whom my mother married in 1976 when I was just 10) is a first generation Italian, a stowaway on a boat, arriving in America after the war. My wife is half Italian, her father a second generation Italian. My best friend during my pre-teen and teen years was Italian, his parents' first generation Italian's with a discernable accent. I'm no stranger to Italian home cooking or Italian-American culture. I take Italian food and culture seriously and consider myself an adopted Italian.
I have a love-hate relationship with Italian-American restaurants. They are bastions of comfort food, and I love comfort food. But they also mostly suck, and I don't say that lightly. They're all the same, and it's not a good sameness. They serve a too thick, and too sweet, overcooked, Italian 'gravy,' that tastes more like burnt tomato paste than tomatoes. Giant, sprawling menus often topping more than four dozen dishes. Huge portions that make even the biggest eater blush. And creativity? There is none. The dishes haven't changed in decades. Most IA restaurants have both feet firmly planted in 1970's gastronomy when an iceberg lettuce based salad was considered haute cuisine. And don't get me started on the crappy so-called "Italian" bread they all serve.
Because of the chef and the people behind Donna's, I'm holding them to a much high standard than I would any other IA joint. My hope is that Nick will elevate the tired Italian classics into something special. The key will be just how far Nick strays from the staid Italian-American restaurant formula. If he goes too far, it will no longer be Italian-American. If he doesn't go far enough, it will be just another red sauce joint, one among countless others in the area.
Without going into too much boring detail, here are a few things that stuck in my mind after my meal at Donna's.
Fresh. Freshness is sorely lacking in most red sauce menus. Thankfully, Donna's dishes are mostly lighter and fresher (for lack of a better term).
I liked the use of fresh parsley. Both my, and my wife's dishes were topped with coarsely chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley. The parsley adds a needed herbiness and grassiness, and it helped balance out the sweetness and fat in our dishes.
The red sauce is thin and barely cooked. The sauce on my dish tasted like the cook opened up a can of tomatoes, waved it over the stove, and put it on the plate, it's that lightly cooked. Fans of the long-cooked thick Italian gravy will be disappointed, but I loved it. It's bright and has a subtle natural sweetness one expects of tomatoes. It's simple too, no herbs or spices, and if there's garlic in there, there's not much, this is a genuine "tomato" sauce.
Of course, it wouldn't be Italian-American if they didn't start the meal with Italian bread. Donna's bread is nothing special, it's bland and squishy with a thin, cracker-like crust. This is disappointing. Perhaps due to cost they've chosen not to go with a better bread. I suggest they break with tradition and not give away lackluster bread. Instead, offer excellent bread at a small charge for those willing to pay for it, like Peck's does.
I'm of two minds on Italian iceberg salad. One part of me wants to see it banished to bad food purgatory forever, and one part appreciates the texture and brightness it brings to a meal. Donna's salad doesn't stray from tradition. The Italian style dressing was light and acidic, but my salad was drenched in too much dressing, which is common to IA joints. It'd be nice to see Nick kick it up a notch and introduce some creativity here.
In my opinion, the house wines are overpriced at $8 a glass. They're very drinkable, but not a good value. The bottle list ventures several times into hundred dollar territory which seems odd for a restaurant that's attempting to be unpretentious. I'd like to see them offer carafes of house wine at a value price.
The menu is small, and will likely change occasionally, which is a big plus, and the portions are spot on; they're not giant while still offering value for the price and are big enough to more than satisfy.
The food is generally good, and I am encouraged that Donna's has the potential to be truly unique. There are some touches of creativity and innovation in the menu, but in my opinion, it doesn't go far enough. I'd like to see a little more break with tradition. Perhaps as time goes on, Nick and crew will feel less constrained and take Albany's beloved Italian-American classics into new, delicious territory. And it may be wishful thinking, but maybe, just maybe, if Donna's raises the bar for Italian-American restaurants, others will follow in their footsteps.