Fairfield Now - Summer 2009
Fairfield alumna Donatella Arpaia '93 runs some of the hottest restaurants in New York
By Meredith Guinness
Donatella Arpaia '93 breezed into Studio 1C, an apartment-turned-hair salon on New York City's Upper East Side, wearing a stylish lavender blouse, slacks, and Dior belt, ever-present Blackberry in her hand. Her white Mercedes was parked up the block.
"Here she is!" said her Italian-born stylist Davide Torchio, who hugged and kissed his longtime client.
Arpaia put down her bag and laptop, changed into a smock, and leaned back in her chair for a shampoo. Over the next two hours - while he affixed hair extensions, curled her lashes, and expertly applied her makeup - Arpaia chatted with Torchio and his partner, French-born Fabrizio Grimaud, lapsing effortlessly from English to Italian and back again.
Torchio suggested a style for the day, pushing her hair forward. Arpaia frowned in the mirror. "I can't have hair in my face," she said. "I'm making a pie, baking dough. It would look unprofessional."
Wait a minute: This woman can cook?
Donatella Arpaia '93 checks her Blackberry over lunch at Mia Dona during a rare break in her day. At right, she takes her post at the front of the house.
And that's just the beginning. In the years since this politics major waved goodbye to the "Rockhouse" she shared with friends on Fairfield Beach, she has skillfully positioned herself as an entrepreneur to watch. After graduating from St. John's University School of Law and realizing five months into her legal practice that the partner track was not for her, she turned to her family business - restaurants. At the tender age of 24, she pooled together her savings (and borrowed a bit from Dad) and opened Bellini, a well-received "piece of Venice in Midtown," according to the 2002 Zagat Survey of New York City restaurants. She was able to pay back Dad in six months. In fact, he doubled his money.
From there she's forged an enviable career in restaurants, developing a keen eye for those who complement her acumen in the front of the house with culinary flair in the kitchen. First up was celebrity chef David Burke, with whom she opened davidburke & donatella, a popular Upper East Side eatery that won a four-star review in Forbes. The two recently announced an amicable professional divorce and have gone their separate culinary ways.
But Arpaia already has another business partner, innovative chef Michael Psilakis, with whom she's growing an exciting Italian/Greek restaurant empire. The pair now own three NYC restaurants - Anthos, a high-end Greek spot they opened in 2007; Mia Dona, which has been open for a year and serves Italian-inspired food and meatballs to die for; and Kefi on the Upper West Side, offering the homey, hearty Greek fare of Psilakis' childhood.
In April, the two partners were scheduled to open a Mediterranean small plate restaurant in Miami and in June they'll cut the ribbon on Gus & Gabriel, a New York gastropub aimed at "feeding the kid in you" with sliders and macaroni and cheese, said Arpaia, who has trained in French and Italian cooking and pastry arts at the Institute of Culinary Education.
The stakes are high: Anthos is one of just two Greek restaurants in the world to win a coveted Michelin star and diners expect nothing less than excellence at all of their eateries. "It's very exciting - and scary at the same time," she said.
Arpaia reviews a recipe for pastiera, a sweet Italian pie usually served at Easter with Executive Pastry Chef Zachary Miller and Young Kang, a pastry assistant, at Kefi.
In between running the restaurants, Arpaia has launched a line of artisanal foods, including three pasta sauces, extra virgin olive oil, and her grandmother's almond cookies, has a quarterly magazine available in her restaurants, blogs for iVillage.com's "Food Channel" blog, and is putting together a "cookbook with a lifestyle component" due this fall. She's even a partner in Torchio's posh new salon on Lexington Avenue. "All these years it's been chefs, but hey, this is a girl's dream," said Arpaia of the hair salon, laughing.
And does she look familiar? If you're a foodie, you've probably seen her as a judge on Iron Chef America or The Next Iron Chef. "I'm tough, so they keep asking me back," she shrugged.
All her hard work hasn't gone unnoticed. Zagat crowned her "Hostess with the Mostest." Crain's upped the ante, naming her one of its "40 Under 40," and Woman's Wear Daily gushed "If James Bond had a restaurateur girlfriend, Donatella Arpaia would be it."
Amid all the hoopla, Arpaia tries to remain true to what made her a success in the first place: honest food and a welcoming atmosphere. She still spends any free time in the summer at her mother's family farm in Italy's Puglia region, learning her craft from the true masters - her relatives.
"My father came here when he was 19. My mother was 15 when she came," she said. "It was the classic immigrant story. They had nothing." But they worked hard and Arpaia and her siblings grew up in upper middle class comfort in Woodmere, Long Island.
Like her parents, she is conscientious and driven. "I think some people are wired this way and some are not. I don't know what it's like not to be passionate, not to be driven," she laughed.
While some might think she's just in it for power or money, Arpaia, a theology minor at Fairfield, sees things differently. "More and more today, people have to dilute things. You know, they'll say, 'I have my own spirituality,'" she said, rolling her eyes. "It wasn't planned, but my whole schooling was Catholic and I think that Christian values and ethics definitely had an effect on me. I watched my parents work and I felt a strong obligation to them. And I really like to bring people together and teach people, impart what I've learned."
Her professors saw a glimmer of Arpaia's thoughtful drive in the early 1990s. "I had her for Introduction to American Government and I remember she was a great student," said Dr. John Orman, professor of politics.
A camera crew from Better TV, part of the national Home and Family Network, shoots a cooking segment with Arpaia under the Greek flag in Kefi's prep kitchen.
"She was a very good student - serious, committed, mature, with a very good sense of humor," added retired professor of politics, Dr. Alan Katz.
She's found a perfect business partner in Psilakis, who was cooking in a Long Island restaurant when she talked him into moving to the big leagues.
"Certain people can walk into a room and make that room like them. In restaurants, that's priceless, and she has that," said Psilakis, whose two sisters-in-law, Maria Caputo Cafaro '96 and Christina Caputo Zine '94, are also Fairfield alumnae.
Arpaia recognizes that. Her upcoming cookbook is perhaps the best example of the brand she's building. Called Cooking in Heels, it's meant to speak to a group she feels has been left out of the foodie nation.
"They're women who have jobs, kids. They're smart, stylish, and successful," said Arpaia, who is single. "But when it comes to cooking, they haven't a clue. It's Martha Stewart meets Sex & the City."
Zipping from restaurant to restaurant, fielding e-mails and phone calls well into the night, making daring decisions in a highly stressful industry, Arpaia has found a silver lining to her hectic lifestyle. "I do work all the time," she said. "It isn't easy and it can be very stressful.
"But I'm my own boss. I don't answer to anyone."
Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe
Recipe courtesy of Donatella Arpaia
4 sweet Italian sausages (about 1 pound), casing removed, and crumbled
Place sausage in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage to a bowl; set sausage and skillet aside.
Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add salt, return to a boil and add broccoli rabe. Cook 1 minute and drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid; set aside.
Bring a second large pot of water to a boil. Add salt, return to a boil and add pasta. Cook until al dente, 5 to 8 minutes; drain.
Place reserved skillet over medium-high heat and add oil, broccoli rabe, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Return sausage to the skillet along with the orecchiette. Stir to combine, adding reserved cooking liquid if pasta seems too dry; sprinkle with cheese and serve immediately.