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Q & A with Prova Pizzabar’s Donatella Arpaia

800px-donatella_arpaiaHaving spent 15 years entrenched in NYC’s fine dining world (past and present projects include Davidburke & Donatella, Anthos, and Kefi), Donatella Arpaia’s entrance to the fast-casual fray comes as a bit of a surprise.  Especially since the opening of Prova Pizzabar in Grand Central follows quickly on the heels of the shutter of Prova in Chelsea; leading to chatter and speculation about the assumed connection.

“I never closed Prova; I actively sold it to Michael Weinstein because I wanted to focus on this and create this brand,” clarifies Arpaia.  “The only similarities are the name and the meatballs, which I’ve been serving in my restaurants forever.  But none of the partners are the same, and the pizza is completely different.”

“And even aside from Prova, I had already sold most of my high-end restaurants; largely for personal reasons,” she continues.  “I became a wife and mother, for one, and especially with me being a public figure, fine dining restaurants require me to be there every night.  I wanted, for the first time, to focus on being home.  Moving into upscale quick service allows me to still have a life where it’s all about the product, but not about me.”

We also spoke to the restaurateur about the development of Prova Pizzabar’s Neapolitan/Roman hybrid, and why her out-on-the-town lifestyle has been largely replaced by Taco Tuesday nights.

What made you decide to make the leap from fine dining to fast-casual?
After 15 years, I was just tired of the whole fine dining routine.  And so after my last project, which was a high-end pizza restaurant, I really wanted to move into an upscale quick service concept.  I felt there was a demand for pizza and traditional Italian foods of high quality but on the go, which is hard to find.  Everyone loves eggplant parmigiana and meatballs, but unfortunately you go to the local pizza places and they’re not executed at a high level.  There was a need for something like this, and my customers have always asked for something like this, and I’ve actually been planning it for years.

So how did the opportunity for the Grand Central location come about?
Being in New York, I’ve learned that location is so important, and so I wanted to launch in a very strong location.  When the public offering came out for Grand Central I put my hat in, knowing that it was highly competitive and not thinking I would get it.  Since it was a former pizza place with a counter, as well as the only space on the lower level that had a full 45-seat dining room, it perfectly suited my hybrid concept.  It took a year before I found out that they’d actually accepted my bid, and I was over the moon about it.

Transit hubs used to be total food deserts.  What are your thoughts on the whole high end food court trend, and why do you think it’s taken so long for restauranteurs to take advantage of these hungry commuter-thronged spaces?
It’s great that at train stations and airports, they’re realizing that people want Shake Shack nowadays, not McDonald’s.  The customer is more educated.  And Grand Central is not only a transit hub, it’s one of the largest tourist destinations in New York, so having good food options is important.  When leases from these old, tired brands finally come up, they’re being replaced with more chef driven, upscale service concepts which is great.  And we fit into that new style of dining perfectly, especially since the city isn’t already saturated with spots serving pizza on the go, executed well in an artisanal manner and sold by the slice.

Nevertheless, we are a pizza obsessed city… so what sets Prova Pizzabar’s pizza apart?
I’ve been working with my chef from Prova restaurant, who is a pizza master and trained in the Neapolitan style, to create a cross between Neapolitan and Roman-style pizza Italio.  It uses the same type of flour as Neapolitan pizza, but it’s square like Roman, and the process of yeast fermentation occurs outside of the body not inside, making a very light and digestible dough.  But it doesn’t stop with the dough.  Instead of pepperoni, I like soppressata.  We use either local and fresh or imported from Italy ingredients.  Pizza is beloved by everyone, and people are ready for a better slice.

What dishes at Prova Pizzabar are you especially excited about right now?
The top sellers are the Margarita, the Diavola, and the Meatball Pizzas.  Although some of the more interesting foodie ones include my Pumpkin Pizza with guanciale, rosemary and pine nuts, and since I’m obsessed with truffles, so I have a Tartufa Pizza with speck, black truffle cream and porcini mushrooms.  In the dining room, my meatballs are a favorite, obviously, as is my eggplant parm; people are obsessed with it because it’s done the authentic Neapolitan way; not breaded or egged, just thinly sliced and layered like my Great Aunt from Naples made it.

And what do you like to do, and eat, on a rare day off in the city?
When you get older, your metabolism isn’t the same, so I have to stay away from carbs and they’re my favorite!  But people like to go where they’re known, and since my friend designed Toro, I end up there a lot.  I tend to not go to Italian restaurants for obvious reasons, but I do love Scott Conant, so I’ll visit him when I go out for Italian.  But I don’t have time anymore; it’s sad…I used to go out every night when I wasn’t married.  When you’re not working, though, you feel like you have to be with your husband and your kid, and I actually cook a lot now, believe it or not.  I used to be so in the know about restaurants!

What do you always keep on hand in your home fridge or pantry, besides basics like butter, oil and eggs?
When I was growing up, my mom cooked and we ate it; you didn’t cook a bunch of different things for your kids.  But my son is so picky!  He has a big sweet tooth and loves shrimp and salmon, and my husband is Scottish Irish and a big meat eater, so we end up eating in a very American sort of style!  I’ve been bringing out the slow cooker a lot; I get such a demand on my social media sites for slow cooker recipes and now I understand why.  I used to be like; “Who uses a slow cooker anymore, that’s so 1950’s!”  But all these working moms like to set it up in the morning and come home to a cooked meal.  So we have fish twice a week, meat twice a week, a theme night once in a while, like Taco Tuesdays.  Yes, I’ve become domesticated, it had to happen!  And yes, you can be sure that I bring food home from Prova once a week too.  My husband teases me about it, but I say technically I cooked this food because I created the recipes!

What do you consider to be the single greatest achievement of your professional career?
I actually am really proud of what I’m doing right now.  I’ve gone through so many highs and lows over the past 15 years in terms of the economy and partnerships; so this was a really hard earned project that I have total control over, and am so clear about.  I also have such an incredible team, from my chef to my investors which is important, because its all about the environment you create and the people you work with.  And we’re killing it.  We’re hitting it out of the park.  I also feel that I appreciate it more at this point in my life.  As a wife and mother I’m more grounded and make better decisions because I don’t want the stress in my life.  And I get more enjoyment out of my work, now that I have the full picture at home.  It’s like when you lose weight the right way instead of a crash diet, you feel especially proud of yourself!

What’s next for you, another restaurant, a cookbook, some food TV perhaps?
My other big thing right now is I’ve designed another entertainment collection with Frontgate.  Once I became a wife and mother and got a home in Connecticut, I realized there was a need for a modern, glamorous type of entertainment and kitchen line that’s durable and you don’t have to hand wash; and it’s doing very well.  And I’m already putting out bids for other locations of Prova Pizzabar!

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