An Evening with Celebrity Chef Donatella Arpaia

The secret of Italian cooking has always been authenticity, and for Chef Donatella Arpaia, that authenticity is worth more than Italian cooking itself. With several award winning restaurants, Food Network appearances as a judge on Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, and the accolades of “Hostess with the Mostess” and one of “America’s Most Powerful Women,” it may be a surprise that cooking comes second on Donatella’s list.

Donatella always knew her passion to become a chef would remain close to heart, but as a young woman she instead chose to follow the wishes of her father and pursue a more reliable career. Her father, a first generation Italian immigrant, had been in the restaurant business for years and, having seen the pitfalls of the industry, encouraged his daughter to practice law. After a brief time spent as an attorney, Donatella finally decided to follow her culinary dream.

Dinner with Donatella echoed the Hard Rock’s balance of excitement and relaxation.

Donatella’s law career became one of the most vital chapters of her story after she discussed its importance at Dinner with Donatella, an elegant evening hosted by Council Oak, the luxurious steak and seafood restaurant located in Tampa’s dazzling Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

“Unlike other restaurateurs and chefs, I do have an advanced degree in education, and I think that’s always a good thing,” Donatella explains. “The restaurant is also a business… and law was a great discipline for me.”

But time pursuing a law degree taught Donatella more than just business skills: she learned that authenticity in Italian cooking begins outside of the kitchen. Donatella is an authentic Italian chef because she set aside dreams of becoming one; she chose to honor her family first, the sign of a truly authentic Italian.

“I was the good Italian daughter,” Donatella says. “I don’t regret it… but I’m happy I had the courage to follow what I knew was in my heart, and what was in my heart was the fact that the happiest moments of my life were around family and food.” For Donatella, family always comes first, and food follows as a close second.

November 14th was a night to honor the authenticity of Chef Arpaia, as Tampa’s elite and food lovers near and far came to enjoy a three-course dinner curated by Donatella herself. The restaurant’s location in Seminole Hard Rock, the world’s sixth largest casino, is a suitable venue for a chef of Donatella’s standing, as the Hard Rock’s thematic design celebrates iconic greats and living legends, and Donatella could be considered a rock star of the culinary world. Every wall surrounds guests with pieces of the past and mementos of today, from Frank Sinatra’s jacket to Mick Fleetwood’s drum throne. The rock ‘n’ roll memories seem to come to life among the vibrant energy of the casino, filled with the hum of hopeful winnings and the pulsating rhythm of hard rock anthems. The hotel of Seminole Hard Rock defines the rock star style with a classic yet edgy aesthetic; its elegant designs and modern furnishings offer a relaxing balance to the excitement on the casino floor.

Dinner with Donatella echoed the Hard Rock’s balance of excitement and relaxation. The calm, intimate setting paired like a fine wine with the anticipation of the award winner’s delicious creations, and those fortunate enough to be in attendance awaited Donatella’s introduction of each unique course. Donned in a beautiful emerald dress, Donatella stepped out of the kitchen and casually threw on her chef’s coat that, although an everyday comfort to Donatella, seemed like the robe of a royal to the rest of the room.

Although Donatella’s first dish was a precursor to the evening’s main course of red wine braised short ribs, it was perhaps one of the most memorable. Donatella introduced her guests to gnudi with fonduta di cacciocavallo, Italian pasta similar to gnocchi with a charming surprise: it is made of ricotta cheese, crafted in the village from which Donatella’s mother hails. Breadcrumbs dusted the tender gnudi, which added a crystalline texture that gave the dish a sugary sweetness. This first course was paired exquisitely with a lightly aromatic white wine, Castello della Sala “Bramito del Cervo.” The creamy nature of this chilled wine balanced the subtlety of the dish, while the vibrancy added a refreshing zest.

Donatella’s dessert was a perfect grand finale: a chocolate hazelnut cake with vanilla poached pairs, alongside miniature cannolis that were, as Donatella says, “Deep fried, as they should be!” The decadent cannolis were truly an indulgence, and toasted pistachios and shreds of bittersweet chocolate added hints of savory brightness. The dessert wine, Michele Chiarlo “Nivole,” could have been served as a dessert itself; the whispers of fruity flavor mixed joyously with a candy-like boldness, and the wine carried a sweet perfume that many wished to wear out of the restaurant.

The decadent cannolis were truly an indulgence, and toasted pistachios and shreds of bittersweet chocolate added hints of savory brightness.

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While tasting the different hues of the dinner’s spectrum, savoring each bite of the Italian masterpieces, I began to watch Donatella eating her own creations at the table across from mine. She was completely satisfied; she did not stop to notice every nuance of every taste, nor did she look around to watch her guests’ reactions. She was not fazed by the caliber of her food. She knew it was there; it was within her the whole time. Donatella simply enjoyed herself, eating mushrooms with her fingers and laughing with her friends. For that moment, she was not Chef Arpaia, but Donatella, eating with her hands in her own kitchen.

This is probably the same expression Donatella wore over the holidays, as her family celebrated Christmas in her home for the first time. “I want to bring back the traditions that my mother had but also add new ones,” she says. After watching her that evening as her authenticity came to life, it is clear that Donatella’s traditions will continue.

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Council Oak Steaks & Seafood
813-627-7628
5223 Orient Rd. Tampa, FL 33610
http://seminolehardrocktampa.com/tampa-restaurants/council-oak