Review: New Italian eatery Donetto does pasta well but has some misses

Dec 28, 2017
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Spaghetti with white Bolognese is topped with torn basil at Donetto in West Midtown. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Much press has been given to Donetto, a fine-dining Italian spot, open since late September, in one of the historic buildings that form the Stockyards redevelopment project in West Midtown. The press is justifiable.

Donetto is a new concept by 32-year-old chef Michael Perez, who partnered in this venture with Steve Palmer, managing partner of Charleston, S.C.-based Indigo Road hospitality group, which operates such area restaurants as O-Ku Sushi in Midtown and Oak Steakhouse and Colletta at Avalon. Perez worked with the group for the past five years, starting as sous chef at Indaco in Charleston and ultimately helming that kitchen. The group’s expansion to Atlanta led to his move here, where he oversaw culinary operations at both Colletta and Oak.

Donetto executive chef and partner Michael Perez. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But Donetto is Perez’s baby, despite that the moniker references the heaviest Chianina bull (an Italian breed) in history. When the Portland, Ore., native speaks of his vision for Donetto, he recalls the trip he made to Italy a couple of years ago. He reminisces about two cities that spoke to him during that monthlong visit: Bologna up north and Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. Bologna, he said, for the simplicity of the food; that is, dishes prepared with high-quality, minimal ingredients and executed well. Sorrento struck a chord for its hospitality.

These two components are key to Perez’s concept, which sits catty-cornered to Miller Union, another high-end establishment and whose chef and co-owner, Steven Satterfield, shares similar beliefs about sourcing, dish conception and hospitality. In fact, it was Satterfield who introduced Perez to many farmers and food producers when he settled in Atlanta and who suggested that Perez’s Italian concept would be a good addition to the neighborhood.

Donetto Ripiena pasta with quail, smoked mushrooms, garlic, and quail jus. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Donetto has hospitality down pat. From valet to reception desk to dining room, where a round of water for the table is quick to come out, service is friendly and efficient. Apart from clunky tableside deboning of a whole roasted yellowtail snapper that missed many a pin bone, invariably ending up stuck between our teeth, servers proved themselves adept and informed.

Hospitality includes generosity, and Donetto shows that in a perhaps minor, but still noticeable way: its bread service. A standard order of its house focaccia normally brings three squares, but when a four-top comes in, another is added, at no extra charge. And the first refill is on the house. It’s that kind of small touch that sets a positive tone for the rest of the meal.

Pouring a draft Negroni at Donetto. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

So, too, does Donetto’s capable bar that stirs and shakes recommendable cocktails no matter your spirit of choice: the “Darsi” all’Ippica (bourbon), the Smokey Cocchi (mezcal), the Negroni on draft (gin) and Orange is the New Crack (vodka). There are plenty of wine picks by the glass or bottle, an almost all-Georgia beer lineup and a handful of refreshing mocktails.

Enjoy one of those drinks as you take in the scene. The space, designed by architect David Thompson, who also had a hand in Oak Steakhouse at Avalon in Alpharetta, is striking. Industrial windows and high ceilings with exposed ductwork recall the building’s former life as a meatpacking facility but harmonize with the warm tones and polished textures among flooring, seating and lighting.

Donetto’s interior is striking and includes some features that recall the building’s former life as a meatpacking facility. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As for Perez’s desire to showcase the food as simply as possible, Donetto succeeds in some cases, but falls shorts in others.

Success would be its pasta program. Shapes of all sizes are hand-made here, and it’s a man by the name of Glen Zerby who deserves a fair amount of credit. Perez caught the bug for pasta-making during his tenure at the now-defunct Scarpetta in Los Angeles. He’s passed on his pasta know-how to Zerby, who is turning out beautiful and delicious spirals, strands and stuffed varieties. Each pasta offered the right bite, with the dough for filled pastas such as the tortellini-esque Ripiena rolled out thin enough to let the filling flavors of quail and mushroom speak for themselves.

When it comes to actual sauces, that applied to its Spaghetti shine brightest. A white Bolognese made with a mix of Carolina Heritage Farms pork and Angus beef and finished with a flourish of herbs, it is not a heavy, thick concoction, but rather just enough to cling to the strands instead of coat them to suffocation. Sauces for other pastas were non-events (Tortelli) or sometimes just salty (Agnolotti) or sweet (Campanelle) events, unfortunate when the pasta itself is this good, but more so when it comes with a stiff price tag if you order a whole ($20-$25) rather than a half portion ($12-$17).

Porchetta at Donetto needs no embellishment: just a slab of pork belly wrapped around a pork tenderloin, roasted till the exterior crackles. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On the meatier side, Perez hits the minimalist mark with Porchetta. Pork belly and tenderloin are cured for 24 hours in a mix of brown sugar, orange zest and salt, before the belly gets wrapped around the loin and cooked to savory, fatty, moist goodness on a rotisserie over wood, and served with a simple grilled lemon half.

Higher prices bring with them an expectation of excellence. And with a handful of dishes, Donetto fell short of expectation. Like that whole roasted yellowtail snapper ($34) whose pin bones brought disappointment despite the flakiness of the fillet. Or overcooked Crispy Fried Rabbit ($29). Or the annoying dramatic black brush stroke of squid ink vinaigrette painted on the bottom of a bowl holding an appetizer of Salt Cod Fritters ($12); what’s the point if, when you swipe a fritter in search of flavor from the vin, it’s only to find the component utterly stuck to the bowl?

Donetto has a fair amount of vegetarian offerings, including a Butternut Squash “Steak” entree. The attempt to assuage the veg crowd is commendable, but this composed dish may have been the most disappointing of all. Despite the butternut squash having undergone sous vide treatment then cooked on the grill, the texture was hard and the accompanying flavors of apple puree and Swiss chard never harmonized. Halved Brussels sprouts held a nice brown look but an interior that tasted practically raw. The only veg side dish worth reordering was roasted cauliflower.

Roasted cauliflower gets a jolt of flavor from brown butter, red onions and lemon. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Service, bar, pasta, porchetta. Those are highlights and reasons to check out Donetto.

Thinking back to that focaccia, Perez wants Donetto’s bread service to be the “Cadillac of bread service.” I just don’t think it’s there yet. The bread was dry both times I ordered it, and the trio of accompaniments — a first-press Ligurian olive oil, a caponata that takes three days to make and a special butter made of a combination of sourdough starter whipped with crème fraiche — didn’t take me to bread service nirvana.

However, the mindfulness that this young chef puts behind the components for each dish, seeking purpose from each ingredient, is highly noticeable. The catch is that those will inevitably get lost, even negated, when an expensive dish comes out lackluster whether due to discordant elements or poor execution.