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Roberto's 8

Roberto Donna has known the highs and lows of being a famous chef. He has won awards and acclaim and has headed a small empire of restaurants...and has had business challenges and seen restuarants close. Fortunately for us, he keeps coming back. His most recent restaurant is Al Dente, on New Mexico Avenue, near American University. And several nights a week--mid-week--he offers something called Roberto's 8 within the restaurant.

Roberto's 8 refers to 8 seats at the bar facing Chef Donna's open kitchen. A group of us visited Roberto's 8 this week. The promise is that you'll have 12+ courses. Emphasis on the "+". We had some idea what we might expect because we had spent an anniversary in Il Laboratorio with Chef Donna some 23 or so years ago. Il Laboratorio was a show kitchen inside Gailileo where he served many small plates to a few tables. It was a memorable experitence. Roberto's 8 was also memorable.

The new restaurant is more casual than Gailileo (which, for those who never experienced it, was a bastion of Italian fine dining)--and the initmate dining experience with Chef Donna is more casual than Il Laboratorio. That's not a criticism...casual seems to fit Chef Donna and the tasting experience very well.

This evening began with a smile and and "I hope you're hungry"...and we were. At least we were until we worked our way through a good portion of our 18 or 19 courses! They were small plates which, combined, gave us a good tour of Italy. While I suppose it would be possible to comment in some detail on every course, it probably wouldn't fascinate anyone who wasn't actually there. But it really was a full tour.

We began with what might be called starters. A pizzeta with cheese, onion and quali egg, then a campari tomato with olive oil mousse and proscuitto. Then seafood. Octopus with gnocchi...a beautiful presentation of a prawn done in tempura...and yellow pepper soup with crab meat.

Eggs scrambled with burrata cheese and black truffles were presented in an egg shell. Dleicious! Then agnolotti with bufala mozzarella, eggplant and saffron. And one of the real highlights, risotto with soft shell crab.

Then the meats. Lamb, served with artichokes and fava beans. Squab with spinach and porcini mushrooms. Both wonderful. And then the desserts. Five of them, if I counted right. A variety of sweet flavors and textures from passon fruit granita to panna cotta.

The plates were sized--and the courses were paced--such that it didn't seem like a lot of food...just a lot of flavors. It was really a culinary tour de force.

Given the number of courses, we didn't try to pick wines ourselves to match...even if we'd known everything that was coming (we didn't) that would have been hard. Chef Donna had chosen a white, a rosé and a red that he believed would pair with the menu and we trusted that. They were all very pleasant (the white was soave and the red was chianti classico riserva). Maybe not memorable, but very pleasant. And in retrospect, that seems ideal. The food was so memorable, that memorable wine probably wouldn't have complimented might well have competed with it.

Roberto's 8...a unique and enjoyable diining experience. One of America's great chefs taking you on a private, many-course tour of Italy.

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