Donatella Arpaia is perhaps best known for her time judging Iron Chef America on the Food Network and her numerous award-winning fine dining restaurants—but she didn’t always have plans to be a restaurateur. “My father told me to be a lawyer, and that’s what I did at first,” Arpaia says. But at the age of 27, she opened her first restaurant, bellini, “with sheer will, determination, personality, and a lot of grassroots marketing.” Arpaia’s latest venture—the upscale fast-service Prova Pizzabar—has two locations in New York. We sat down with her to discuss plans for Prova and the state of pizza in general.
How did you get started in the restaurant business? I have Italian parents, and I literally grew up in the business. I was surrounded by chefs, but I never worked in restaurants until I had the idea to open Bellini, and later davidburke & donatella, which really put me on the map. After I opened my third restaurant, I decided to go to culinary school to sharpen my skills in all areas of the restaurant business. Becoming a chef has provided me with so much variety in my career. I have no regrets about leaving law—I’ve never looked back!
How has your experience as an Iron Chef judge helped you with your pizzeria? I was eating at such a high level on the show, and I was lucky to be exposed to the best cooking. With Iron Chef America you’re dealing with very established chefs, and the whole experience really honed my palate. I also had the opportunity to see how the chefs grew in their profession. I think the best chefs are constant students. In this business you can’t remain stagnant or you fall behind.
What are some of the most exciting changes in the industry for pizza? People want a better product in every area. Even just your basic slice can be elevated to a new level. Technique is important, but so is sourcing the right ingredients. The essence of Italian cuisine is to let the ingredients shine.
For example, there’s a lot of science behind my dough. I developed the recipe from ancient grains from Naples—it has a high water content and a long rest period, which results in a more digestible, yet still delicious pizza. In addition, customers are looking for more natural ingredients, and to meet that demand, we use a fresh mozzarella that has no artificial whiteners.
You use Galbani cheese at Prova Pizzabar. How did you choose that product? Part of the reason I chose what I did is because it tasted like my childhood summers in Italy. Mozzarella is supposed to look and taste like milk. I told my manager I wanted to do a blind tasting, and when I did, I chose Galbani based on the taste—but it also has a perfect melting point, which increases efficiency in my kitchen and improves the overall taste of my food. It also happens to be the best-selling cheese brand in Italy, so I knew I had made the right choice—when it comes to mozzarella, Italians are the most critical in the world!
What toppings are on your favorite pizza? Cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, truffle oil, arugula, and a bit of prosciutto.