Galileo reincarnated (again)


But somewhere between the closing of his second Galileo, including his worshipped Il Laboratorio del Galileo, and his Crystal City-couched venture, Bebo Trattoria, Donna lost his way and his fortune, and tumbled from grace. Since Bebo’s closing in 2009, Donna has been nailed by one lawsuit or felony charge after another; accusations ranged from violation of minimum-wage and overtime laws (by employees) to unpaid Arlington County meal taxes to taxes owed to both Washington and Virginia.

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With a suspended five-year prison sentence and hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to former employees and various local governments hanging over his head, Donna is trying to put his past behind him and get back to working miracles in the kitchen.

After months of delay and great anticipation from his gustatory acolytes, Donna opened the third incarnation of Galileo on 14th Street NW in early October 2010. (It’s worth mentioning that Donna is not a partner at Galileo III but a salaried employee; his wife, however, is a partner.) His latest temple to authentic Italian cuisine has 80 seats in a formal dining room that sits between a surprisingly lively bar and the large window to the kitchen. (A quibble: The bar has a flat-screen TV hanging overhead and is visible to most of the dining room — its very presence is questionable for such a formal and expensive venue.)

The décor is simple, going for a modern vibe, but bested by rust-colored carpet and monochromatic Tuscan-yellow walls and ceiling. Two spectacular Dale Chihuly glass artworks hang from the ceiling — the smaller over the entryway, the larger over the dining room — but they get lost in the glaring lights that shine down onto the tables. The bright lights are odd at first, until you notice the half-dozen or so cameras mounted in the dining room. Donna isn’t the first to use video surveillance on customers (chefs usually use them to time the sequence of dishes to a table), but the cameras’ obtrusiveness was a bit unsettling.

Service at Galileo III is professional and attentive. Some staff have been with Donna for years and know the dinner and wine menus like the backs of their hands. If you’re fortunate enough to be served by one of these veterans, do yourself a favor and take his advice on what to eat and drink. Galileo partner (and spouse of the chef) Nancy Sabbagh greets each table with ebullience, almost making you wonder if she has mistaken you for a VIP. It adds a nice personal touch.

Chef Donna has several dish reprisals from Galileos past, and pasta comes in six varieties in addition to a whole five-course pasta tasting menu ($55). Diners have several prix fixe dinners to choose from, three of which are pre-selected and themed (e.g., pasta, vegetarian and “unusual”) six-course meals, and another three are three ($55), four ($72) and five ($89) courses from a 25-item menu.

From the appetizers section, Donna’s budino di parmigiano, or parmesan pudding, was a sumptuous melting pot of parmesan and burrata cheeses and porcini mushroom cream. It’s blessed with being both decadent and homey. The grilled octopus was modern in its looks but had classic accompaniments, including tender fingerling potato, tomato, black olives, capers and a basil-infused oil. The nuggets of octopus tentacle were succulent and flavorful, but other pieces erred on the leathery side, and the out-of-season tomatoes were a colorful prop but added little else.

The chestnut soup was poured tableside over a landscape of tidbits of pancetta, duck gizzard, foie gras and a miniature custard called “tartra.” The soup was delicate and the organ meat, crisped pancetta and dollop of mascarpone did their parts to enrich it. 

Donna’s pasta was ethereal. The texture of the pappardelle had an impossible lightness to it, while it still capably carried the hearty sauce. But the accompanying wild boar sauce was unremarkable in its heavy tomato flavor and somewhat dry boar meat. On the other hand, the raviolini del plin, a classic Piemontese pinched pasta, stood out for its plain appearance and revelatory savor. The adorable meat-filled packages came simply adorned with a grating of cheese, bathed in a brothy sauce of veal jus, butter and sage. The flavors were simple but a perfect balance of butter, cheese, meat and herb that made it irresistible. 

In the main courses you see a bit more of Donna’s creativity. The piccione — squab with huckleberry sauce and potato gratin, but with parmesan — was an interesting study in American and Italian culinary traditions. The squab breast was lusciously tender with an almost liver taste  — a dish for rare-meat lovers, to be sure, but it would have benefited from another sprinkling of salt. The huckleberry sauce was no more than berries with some juice, which sounded more interesting on the menu than what it delivered on the plate. Potatoes done in a gratin style were lackluster. The leg meat was ground into a sausage and was a tasty, well-seasoned morsel between the breast and potatoes.

Similarly, the grilled ribeye served over a rectangle of potato tart and black olive sauce was all wrong when it came to seasoning. The potato tart, which could have come from the same pan as the squab’s potato "alla Parmigiano," was a bland vehicle for the cubes of ribeye. And speaking of the ribeye, it was dripping with salt from the black olive sauce. It was surprising to have such uneven seasoning come from the kitchen of a chef of Donna’s caliber and reputation. However, the sautéed rockfish with sunchoke puree and red wine sauce was spot-on: the fish moist, the puree creamy and the red wine sauce balanced between richness and acidity.

Desserts seemed to be hit or miss — we got one hit and one miss. The olive oil torta is a precious tower of a cake with a distinct, but not overpowering, olive oil flavor. The accompanying creamy olive oil sorbet was a pleasant counterpoint, but the vanilla-poached fennel was a bit funky and would likely brighten up with a bit more sugar. The miss came in the form of a panna cotta, no doubt carefully placed on a plate with beautifully bright passion fruit sauce and lovely slivers of candied lemon peel. But you know gelatin has gone awry when you can eat the panna with a knife and fork. This stiff imposter posing as panna cotta never should have left the kitchen.

Chef Donna has recently been quoted as saying that the past is the past — in essence, he’s ready to reclaim his pedestal in the Washington restaurant world. By many people’s standards, the mere fact that there is another Galileo is a miracle. But with haute cuisine, the devil is in the details, and there were many instances when it seemed no one was tending to those edible minutiae. Donna can claim another reincarnation, but his culinary redemption is yet to be realized.