You probably don’t remember what you were doing at noon on May 19, 2006. I do. I was waiting in line for Roberto Donna to strangle me.
Many of you know of Roberto Donna, who burst onto the Washington dining scene in 1984 when he opened Galileo at the impossibly young age of twenty-three. Galileo was such an immediate smash that even Vice-President George H.W. Bush was turned away when he tried to get a last-minute reservation. Over the next two decades Chef Donna’s stature — and his celebrity — only grew. In 1996, he won the James Beard Award for the Mid-Atlantic’s Best Chef and the following year Galileo was named one of the “10 Best Italian Restaurants in America” by Wine Spectator. By the late-’90s, Donna’s empire had grown to 12 restaurants, including Il Radicchio, Barolo, and Il Laboratorio del Galileo, a restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Galileo where Chef Donna personally cooked for thirty lucky guests a night from a glass “showcase” kitchen. Roberto even competed twice in the mid-2000s against the great Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America (he went 1-1). My point here is that, at the time of our run-in in 2006, Roberto Donna was a big, scary deal.
One more key piece of background you need to know. There was also a pop-up operation called the Galileo Grill that occasionally opened for lunch in the Laboratorio space. The Grill worked like this. Every now and then Roberto would fire up the Grill and offer a short list of take-out sandwiches — sausage and meat ball subs, hot dogs, and the most popular offering, Roberto’s roast pork sandwich with green sauce. Roberto himself worked the counter and helped make the sandwiches. There wasn’t even a cashier, just a cigar box where you’d leave your money — cash only — and make your own change on the honor system.
The most exciting part was there was no way to predict when the Grill would be open. You had to get on their email list or be connected to someone who was. And when the word came down, the news spread lightning-fast. It was like the phone-tree in Bye Bye Birdie, except instead of teenagers buzzing about Hugo and Kim getting pinned it was adults losing their minds about roast pork.
The fateful events of May 19 were actually set in motion two days earlier when I sat down at work and logged on to my go-to site for DC restaurant chit-chat, DonRockwell.com (which still exists). There, in all caps at the top of the feed, was the joyous news: GALILEO GRILL OPEN THE NEXT THREE DAYS FOR LUNCH!
As a Grill rookie, the thrill of walking in and seeing Roberto Donna in the flesh (it’s really him!) was like the first time I saw Michael Jordan play at the United Center. All eyes were on the maestro taking orders, joking with customers, and making sandwiches. I got my roast pork sammie from the man himself and floated out to the nearest bench where I sat and unwrapped it with the reverence of Charlie Bucket unwrapping a Wonka Bar.
The next day, May 18, 2006, I posted a quick review on DonRockwell.com (my handle is “Pork Belly” — Sonia says of course it is). This is the actual post:
Went yesterday for first time. Charming set up with RD serving sandwiches, cigar box for $, etc. Had the pork shoulder sandwich which, while good, was not in the same league as the pork sandwich at Breadline. The meat was drier and the bread didn’t compare to BL’s ciabatta. Loved the green sauce, though, and will go back to try sausage and dog.
For those who don’t know, Bread Line was (and is) a sandwich shop a few blocks away from Galileo. At the time, it was owned by Mark Furstenberg, who single-handedly raised the bar for good bread in DC when he opened Marvelous Market in 1990. He then ran Bread Line at the peak of its popularity and was nominated as the best chef in the mid-Atlantic by the Beard Foundation. In other words, Bread Line was no slouch. My comment actually was more about how good the Bread Line sandwich was rather than a complaint about the Galileo Grill’s.
But like so much online, that subtlety was lost in translation. The next day, May 19, 2006 — the last day the Grill would be open that week — I arrived eager for Round Two, debating whether I’d go pork sandwich again (this time adding broccoli rabe and provolone) or try something else.
Then I saw a piece of paper taped to the wall and reflexively started reading it. It was a print-out of my DonRockwell.com post! What was it doing taped to the wall? The guy ahead of me clued me in: “Roberto is so pissed. This Pork Belly guy posted that Roberto’s pork sandwich isn’t as good as Bread Line’s. So he bought one of the Bread Line sandwiches and put it up on the counter. He’s asking everyone to tell him which one is better.”
I peeked out from the line. Sure enough, there was Bread Line’s pork sandwich on the counter in front of Roberto. It looked kind of sickly — congealed and unadorned — or maybe that’s just how I was beginning to feel. I could see Roberto, clearly angry, holding his freshly-made pork sandwich in one hand and pointing to the sad-looking Bread Line version with the other. He was demanding that the customers go online to defend his honor: “You must answer this!!!”
I didn’t know whether to stay or sneak away. I really wanted that sandwich but whatever unpleasantness was about to happen seemed like a high price to pay. Then I heard Roberto ask someone in front of me “Are you Pork Belly?” and I really started to panic. I’d shuffle forward and Roberto would ask the next person “Are you Pork Belly?” and the perspiration on my brow turned to flop sweat. But by now I was close enough to the front of the line that I couldn’t just bail. So I kept inching forward, Roberto asking each customer if they were Pork Belly, insisting that they agree that his sandwich was superior, and demanding that they right this terrible wrong.
Finally it was my turn.
All I could do was try to minimize my interaction with Roberto and pray. So I quickly blurted out “sausage sandwich, please” — a simple order with no add-on options — and turned my head, like someone in the back of the line had called my name. I braced myself for the inquisition. It was probably two seconds but it felt like two hours. Then I heard a voice, but it didn’t sound like Roberto! It was the guy behind me! Bless his heart, he couldn’t wait to engage Roberto about how terrible the Bread Line sandwich looked and how the problem with the Internet is that every idiot out there has a platform. I turned back, took my sausage, and dropped a $10 bill in the cigar box without fishing for change.
When I got back to my office, shaken but physically intact, DonRockwell.com was already lighting up with the news. One person thought Roberto had intentionally desiccated the Bread Line sandwich to make it look bad. Another poster, obviously on Team Roberto, asked me facetiously if Roberto’s pork was indeed dry because the meat at Bread Line would “almost have to be liquid” to be any moister than the Grill’s.
Finally Don Rockwell himself weighed in:
Never having tried the Breadline pork sandwich, I have no basis for comparison. However, I’m happy to say that the pork-shoulder sandwich I had today at The Lunch Grill ($8.00 with the works, including provolone and broccoli rabe) was as good as any sandwich, of any type, that I’ve ever eaten, anywhere, at any price.
Yikes. That almost worried me more than a cleaver-wielding Roberto. I was a relative newcomer to the online food community. The only thing worse than being banned from Galileo would be being written off by the cognoscenti on my favorite website. So I tried a conciliatory note:
The pork wasn’t dry, just drier than Breadline’s. Maybe I should have ordered it with cheese and broccoli rabe, or maybe I just got unlucky and got some pieces that had been sitting (I was there early and there was virtually no line). This was just one visit and one sandwich. If it’s open next week, I’ll go back and try again – if they let me in.
But of course I never went back. I don’t like to tempt fate. And besides, Galileo closed later that year. When I first heard about the closing, I feared that it was caused by the hemorrhaging of pork sandwich sales to Bread Line and we’d have to move.
Roberto Donna has had some difficult years post-Galileo — Google it if you’re interested — and is now cooking at Al Dente in Northwest DC, where he continues to put out some very good Italian food under the radar.
Mark Furstenberg now owns Bread Furst in Van Ness where he remains a DC standard-bearer for bread and other baked goods.
I’ve had personal contact with Roberto Donna exactly twice since 2006 — once when he was making the rounds in the dining room of Alba Osteria where he cooked a few years back and once at Al Dente to thank him for dinner. On neither of those occasions did I come close to revealing that I was Pork Belly. Most likely, Roberto has completely forgotten the incident, in which case why mention it. The other option is that he hasn’t forgotten, in which case why mention it times a hundred.