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.