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One On 1: Donatella Arpaia Dishes On Passion To Please

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Over the past decade, Donatella Arpaia has made a habit of defying expectations by succeeding in one of New York's toughest businesses. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One on 1" report.

As if Donatella Arpaia doesn't already stand out as a lawyer turned successful restaurateur and a young woman in a predominantly male game, there's the car -- just another yellow Lamborghini on the streets of New York.

"I didn't do it to show off, I did it for me, I just love it," says Arpaia. "Some people, especially with the economy the way that it is, some people are upset that I am driving it around."

Arpaia is accustomed to getting reactions, but usually at her restaurants, like Mia Dona on the East Side and the newly reopened Keffi on the Upper West Side.

"It's a lot of pressure every night. It's like running a race every night. You start at five o'clock and you finish and you're exhausted at the end of the night," says Arpaia.

When we first met her, Arpaia was awaiting Keffi's final inspection, and its opening. Now, it's showtime.

"There is a constant communication that goes on between the front and back that the audience doesn't see," says Arpaia. "The back will go to the front and say we need time, delay, and that's when i'll go and talk to the customers. Because if you talk to them, and give attention they don't realize the food's not coming out."

The delicate balance is something Arpaia says comes with its challenges, and more importantly, its rewards.

"It's a constant marriage and interplay and sometimes the front of the house will be off, back of the house will be off, both will be on. And if that happens it's magic, it's beautiful, there's nothing like the rush of it going well, it's like a beautiful symphony," says Arpaia.

Each of Arpaia's restaurants has a different vibe. But there are common threads -- the notion of the meal as entertainment, and the importance of making everyone feel welcome whether it's the celebrities, the regulars or the first timers.

Zagat once dubbed her the "hostess with the mostest."

"I have to pretend that I don't know about problems in the kitchen or the floor or the health department or a million problems I have when I'm working," says Arpaia.

Arpaia has been in the restaurant business for 10 years. She says she long ago got accustomed to the reality that not only her restaurants were being reviewed, but she was too.

"My success through the years changes the conversation so that when I first started, it was 90 percent 'Oh, she's hot and she owns a restaurant,' to 'This is what she's done, and oh by the way, she's attractive and she likes to wear pretty clothes'," says Arpaia.

And yet, she says she still hears it from her patrons.

"You look really bad today. Did you gain weight? Did you lose weight? I really don't like that outfit. Uhmmm, did you get work done?" says Arpaia.

She has her own line of tomato sauces. She's appeared as a guest judge on Iron Chef America. There's also plans for her own show.

Arpaia is nothing if not passionate about the business. And that passion occasionally draws questions from people in her old field -- the law.

"They read my bio, and they find out that I was a lawyer, and they're like, 'uhmmm, I'm a lawyer' and a lot of them are very unhappy," says Arpaia. "There's so much fear and I'm not sure why there's so much fear. I think that to me, the scariest thing is to be doing something that you're not loving. To me, that's suffocation."

It's not every restaurateur who cites as an influence the writer Kahlil Gibran, and his quote "work is love made visible."

"To me, work is beautiful and it is love," says Arpaia.

Arpaia also draws inspiration from the memories of summer trips to her mom's small town in Italy, surrounded by cousins and uncles and aunts who taught her how to cook.

"I love doing something really manual and that's all you're focusing on when you're doing it, and I find it extremely relaxing. And it also connects me to my past," says Arpaia.

Her parents experienced post-war poverty growing up in Italy.

Arpaia says she grew up in an upper middle class environment on Long Island thanks to the success of her father's restaurants. But there was also sacrifice.

"He wasn't around. You know, I never knew what it was like to eat dinner with my father every night," says Arpaia. "We had Sundays, but I think there are a lot of parents that come home at five o'clock that aren't present. And I think there are parents that you don't see but when you do see, they are very present."

Her parents' immigrant experience had a significant impact.

"It was a real big juxtaposition. I had one foot in the future and one foot in the past and it completely affected everything," says Arpaia. "My father literally worked night and day, you know, to make sure that I could get an education. I saw him exhausted, I saw him working constantly, I saw everything was dedicated to his children, so how could I disappoint him?"

So, she realized her father's dream, becoming a lawyer. It lasted five months.

"You're living your dream and then one day you're like, 'But this actually isn't my dream.' And once that reality hit, I had to get out," says Arpaia.

She attended the French and Italian culinary institutes. And against her family's wishes, at least initially, she opened her first restaurant, Bellini, in 1997.

"I faked it until I made it. I pretended I knew what I was doing. I'm very good at winging things," says Arpaia.

But then came the success of the restaurant David Burke and Donatella.

Ten years later, there are new restaurants, possible plans to expand beyond New York and a television show in the works.

There's also hopes that the future includes a family and what Arpaia calls a sense of balance, so that she won't be at work all day and all night.

"You're forced to create systems. You're forced not to manage in chaos. I always tell my managers, 'Don't tell me how great you're doing when you're doing, when you're there. Tell me how great the restaurant's doing when you're not there'," says Arpaia.

For now, most of her time is spent at the restaurants and occasionally riding in her yellow Lamborghini -- a self-described old soul, enjoying the present, focusing on the future and appreciating the past.

"I surrounded myself with adults at a very young age and always was listening to the conversations and the dinner table and reading Gibran, not Charlie Brown, so I always knew that I wanted to succeed and be very successful and be very powerful and be able to help the people around me that I love," says Arpaia.

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