NEW YORK — If James Bond had a restaurateur girlfriend, Donatella Arpaia would be it. Known as much for her high heels and Roberto Cavalli wardrobe as her caputini with eggplant, she’s not afraid to use her blonde bombshell looks to get what she wants.
“Get me the leopard dress,” she says to her assistant, flipping her blown-out tresses off her chest to reveal a large diamond “D” pendant. “And I’ll need brown sheer stockings. Control top.”
Arpaia is readying herself for a dinner in honor of bigwig corporate lawyer Lloyd Constantine at her Upper East Side restaurant, David Burke & Donatella. He asked her to join him for the evening, which explains the animal-print chiffon dress.
“It’s different to be a woman in the restaurant industry,” says Arpaia, 32, a Long Island native, who, in addition to David Burke & Donatella, owns Ama in SoHo and the upcoming Dona, in Midtown. “It’s my job to put on a show.”
Arpaia’s success isn’t singularly based on glitz. She also knows how to work a room: who of her regulars likes to sit by a heater; who’s on the Atkins diet, and who just returned from a shopping trip in Paris.
“Donatella has great chemistry with her customers,” says Jeffrey Chodorow, the restaurateur behind China Grill and Asia de Cuba. “You can count the number of great hosts in the city on two hands, and Donatella is definitely one of them.”
It helps that her family is in the business. Her father, Lello, owned two successful Manhattan restaurants, Scarlatti and Lello. And her brother, Umberto, owns Acqua Pazza and Cellini. Arpaia set out with different ambitions, however. She attended law school and took a job in corporate litigation, but gave it up after just eight months. “What was I going to do, be a partner and sit behind a desk all day?” she asks. Instead, she borrowed $250,000 from her father, and, at the age of 25, opened Bellini on East 52nd Street, which has now been shuttered to make room for Dona.
This story first appeared in the March 9, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
She paid her father back within six months, and in 2003 opened the whimsical David Burke & Donatella, where she serves toppling BLTs and chocolate lollipop trees. David Burke is the chef and co-owner.
A year ago, Arpaia built on the success of her namesake restaurant by opening Ama, an all-white space made cozy by the homemade pastas of her family’s native Puglia. And this month, she’ll open Dona with Michael Psilakis, chef and owner of the Upper West Side’s Onera. Dona’s decor, designed by Matthew Sudock, has a residential feel with a black-and-white color palette punctuated by bright yellow banquettes and zebra-print carpeting.
Psilakis and Arpaia, who, while not a classically trained chef, delights in making pasta from scratch, have crafted a menu that mixes her rustic Italian favorites with his gourmet Greek fare.
With television producers starting to call and a cookbook in the works, the Donatella brand is cooking. Still, Arpaia is not planning on modeling her career after that of other domestic doyennes. “I’m not Martha Stewart,” she says. “I don’t live in Connecticut and I’m never going to pick up a Glue Gun.” She’d rather wield a python stiletto.