Father-son duo Adam and Patrick Aasen bring their family-owned Italian restaurant to Carmel.
On its website, the proprietors of Donatello’s Italian Restaurant describe their establishment, in the heart of downtown Carmel’s newly minted Arts and Design District, as “a new romantic destination” and “an homage to dining in a classier time. The days of ‘Mad Men’-esque executives enjoying a carefully cooked meal made from fresh ingredients. Servers treat you like royalty as you sit at tables with crisp white cloths… no TV’s to be distracted by sports. No drunken locals trying to pick up women….”
I know my bride of more than three decades would find such an invitation alluring, having long despaired of enduring a romantic dinner with her dubious significant other at a contemporary restaurant, as he gazes lovingly into her azure blue eyes with his pea soup green left eye, while the right eye of the presumed same color drifts past her left earlobe to the hi-def TV looming over the bar area like a Diamond Vision screen at Lucas Oil Stadium, to see if Tiger, Phil, or Rory makes this tricky downhill, 8-foot birdie putt on 17 to take the lead in the third round of the Charlie Sheen Desert Classic in Modesto.
You come to expect a good chicken marsala from a fine Italian restaurant, and Donatello's delivers just that.
Said proprietors of Donatello’s Italian Restaurant bring lofty credentials and credibility to the concept of romantic dining with undivided attention on the cuisine and on the person you brung (or brung you). For Patrick and Beth Aasen presided over the fine dining jewel, Arturo’s Italian Restaurant, which enjoyed an acclaimed 12-year run in the classy Woodfield Center retail center off 86th and Keystone Avenue from 1991 to 2003, before essentially being forced out with other high-end tenants for a never consummated redevelopment plan that has rendered Woodfield Center Indianapolis’ classiest vacant retail center. Patrick, a chef and co-owner, assumed majority ownership when his co-owner, Arturo Di Rosa, left to open the renowned Amalfi Ristoranti off West 86th and Ditch Road.
Di Rosa was just one of many legendary dining impresarios who gave Aasen his culinary education in fine dining kitchens in the area, including John Macri of Italian Village fame, and Italian-born Rudy Nucilla, who presided over the much beloved Rudy & Rosa’s bistro in the late 1980’s.
Donatello’s opened just in time for New Year’s Eve last year, on Carmel’s Main Street, just east of South Rangeline Road. It most reminds me of the relaxed, intimate country bistro ambiance achieved by Rudy & Rosa’s than the fine dining formality that marked Arturo’s. Beth Aasen brings a warmth to the décor, with tomato red walls adorned with soothing Impressionist land and seascape paintings, and tables covered in white linen. Operating on a very small start-up budget, the Aasens, along with their son Adam, did all of the internal construction, wiring, and decorating and whatall to craft their cozy Italian bistro. And by cozy, we’re talking just a 32-seat capacity – no bar, not a hi-def TV in sight… nothing to distract from the matter at hand, except for what the diner brings onto the premises in the form of smart phones, lap tops, iPads, and other electronic marvels best left in the trunk or glove compartment for the dining duration.
Patrick is a long-time Italian chef having co-owned Arturo’s Italian Restaurant at Woodfield Crossing.
For nothing should distract from the cuisine, and the sparkling conversation and romantic cooing designed to accompany it. The proceedings are nicely launched with slices of hot, fresh bread to be adorned with a mixture of olive oil, diced tomatoes and garlic. Highlighting the appetizer menu are deep fried cheese ravioli with tomato dipping sauce ($7); the lightly fried calamari ($8), best shared to avoid appetite decimation; and my appetizer option of the evening, the Ravioli Gorgonzola ($7), large ravioli squares filled with a tasty five-cheese blend and emboldened in a flavorful cream sauce. It was very much what you look for in an appetizer, solid flavors but not so rich as to undercut your desire for the courses that follow.
The calamari, along with shrimp, is a star attraction of the Zesty Seafood Salad ($8), featuring romaine lettuce, olive oil and basil. Other salad attractions include the Italian Chef rendition ($8) of lettuce, turkey, prosciutto, peppers, and mozzarella and parmesan cheeses tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; and the Gorgonzola Fruit Salad ($7), with the showcased gorgonzola cheese accompanied by tart apples, dried fruit, onion, walnuts and croutons in a fat-free raspberry dressing. Seeking to take advantage of the summer embellishment of the Indiana tomato, I reveled in the Tossed Caprese Salad ($6), the enriched combination of sliced tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella on a bed of lettuce with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, an excellent seasonal salad preliminary.
A lunchtime favorite, gorgonzola fruit salad.
Donatello’s pasta entrees give Aasen a chance to show off his imagination and dexterity with the sauce pan. With his Tortellini Michelangelo ($16), he applies a thick blush cream sauce to the large cheese-filled tortellini pasta rings, topped with mushrooms, onion, bacon flecks, and parmesan. A spicier sauce featuring tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncinis, capers, anchovies, and garlic, adorns penne pasta bearing the muscular moniker of Penne Puttanesca ($16). Penne pasta is also featured in a dish ($18) that takes in shrimp and a pesto sauce of olive oil, pine nuts and basil. A sauce made of cream, egg, bacon, and parmesan cheese graces the Spaghetti Carbonara ($16), while a rich creamed and cheesed sauce is the prime motivation to order the classic Fettuccini Alfredo ($17), infiltrated with sliced chicken, shallots and peas. A risotto dish with wild mushrooms ($16), with a 20-minute preparation time, features of sauce of stock and wine reduction.
Meat entrees includes Veal Parmesan ($20), the hand-breaded veal topped with mozzarella, parmesan, and tomato sauce; veal scallopini ($22) topped with spinach and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses in a blush wine sauce; chicken breast cooked in Marsala wine ($18), highlighted with artichoke hearts, pistachios, and a white wine sauce; and the Shrimp Francese Fandango ($22) of shrimp in a light egg and flour batter cooked with capers in white wine sauce.
On this night I focused on the sole beef entrée, the Bistecca al Pepe, at $24, the priciest dish on Donatello’s reasonably priced menu, entailing an eight-ounce filet in a peppercorn Dijon mustard sauce. This appears to be one of Aasen’s most popular entrees, enhanced by the extreme tenderness of the beef, the zesty kick provided by the crunchy peppercorns in the sauce, and the flavorful bite of the smooth Dijon sauce, fully complementing, not overwhelming the flavor goodness of the filet. Sliced roast potatoes and a vegetable (on this night, zucchini), provide the low key supporting cast.
The dessert menu changes daily, with Aasen’s tiramisu already possessing a solid word-of-mouth, taste-of-tongue reputation, in tandem with the Italian cream cake, a specialty and valuable contribution of Beth’s mother, Susie Brunner. The moist, delicately sweet white cake is effectively iced in a cream frosting sprinkled with flakes of coconut. This cake has a surprising lightness that helps assuage any guilt one might have with age- and waistline-related dessert indulgence… or so I convinced myself. And all I really needed to know is that Mrs. Brunner’s Italian Cream Cake won the first place blue ribbon in the 2002 Indiana State Fair.
With just 32 seats, it doesn’t take long to achieve a full house just about any night at Donatello’s, with patrons arriving around 7 p.m. usually confronted with a fairly lengthy wait – with no bar to belly up to while biding one’s time, charming the companion with streams on bon mots, one eyed cocked on ESPN sports intelligence, and fingers poised to tweet and text. Thus, reservations are a very good idea, especially on the weekends, with the Aasens inviting diners-in-waiting to stroll Main Street and environs and take in the galleries and merchants that comprise the Carmel Arts and Design District. The establishment, located on the south side of 9 Main Street, has ample parking in the back.
An early arrival should fit well in any dinner and theater plans you have as it applies to productions at the nearby Palladium. And Donatello’s is also open for lunch, offering further opportunities to patronize an independent, family affair restaurant that again includes the Aasen’s son, Adam, a former and recovering newspaper reporter, fully prepared to help keep his parents’ restaurant on Main Street thriving and memorable.
DONATELLO’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
9 West Main Street, Carmel
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.;
Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Entrée price range: $14-$24
Credit cards: Major cards accepted