“Italians know fashion and food,” says Donatella De Vette, a case in point. When she moved to Chicago from Rome in the mid-90s, she was an expert in both. Her first business here was an haute couture outlet store, Donatella Boutique, in Old Town. “My friends at home told me Chicago was the Milano of America–lots of industry, hardworking people, and lots of money,” she says. That all turned out to be true enough, but what she didn’t realize was how informally Chicagoans tend to dress. “America’s more casual than Europe,” she says. “There are people in Italy who would shoot you if you wore jeans to the opera. I was coming from that European culture. People in Chicago don’t spend $500 on a suit. Nobody bought. I sold the boutique within two months.”

After 20 years in fashion, De Vette turned to the restaurant business. The daughter of a Sicilian father and a Bolognese mother who was raised in Genoa, De Vette grew up in Rome in a kitchen with an enormous breadth of regional Italian cooking. “I come from a family of doctors and lawyers who entertained a lot,” she says. “I did most of the cooking.”

In 1996 she signed on to manage a north-suburban Italian restaurant. Two years and several personality conflicts later, she headed downtown to be a maitre d’ and office assistant at the Como Inn. “It was like a family,” she says. In fact, it was there that she met Alfonso De Vette, a waiter and maitre d’, with whom she would start her own family three years later. When the Como Inn closed in the summer of 2001, the couple decided they wanted a place of their own.

They opened La Cucina di Donatella in Rogers Park this past June. “I’ve been working almost 24 hours a day since then,” says De Vette. As chef she’s responsible for the restaurant’s extraordinary menu. “These are all of my mother’s and my own dishes,” she says. “It’s the food I grew up eating–Italian, Italian, Italian. Not American Italian food.”

Her menu’s rarities include pasta al proscuitto con burro e salvia–featherlight sheets of handmade spinach pasta wrapped around ham and provolone, delicately drizzled with butter and sage. Her minestrone alla Genovese is chock-full of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. “That one I had to call my mom for,” she says. “She had never written it down, so I had to keep asking her questions.” Paper-thin-crust pizza is equally delicate–topped with fresh mozzarella and sausage, four cheeses, or exotic mushrooms.

DeVette’s personal favorites are the panini stuffed with, for example, chicken breast and spinach; grilled pepper, zucchini, and eggplant; or tuna, artichoke, and tomato. “It’s exactly what I always eat at home,” she says.

With most entrees under $15 and an indefinite BYO status, the restaurant is a bargain. (I suggest bringing a crisp Italian white like Greco di Tufo or Pinot Grigio or a medium-bodied red like Valpolicella or Dolcetto.) And though the seating is limited–the place has room for 30–the restaurant is already drawing regulars. The dress code at her restaurant is extremely casual. “Now I’m wearing jeans all the time,” she says. La Cucina di Donatella is at 2221 W. Howard, 773-262-6533.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.