In some ways, Donna’s has been 20 years in the making. The new red sauce Italian restaurant along Echo Park’s buzzy Sunset strip is the brainchild of Matthew Glaser and Michael Francesconi. The two first met as roommates at USC, then became the business partners (operating under the name Park Hospitality) behind Wolf & Crane in Little Tokyo, and Bar Flores, Lowboy, and Adamae in Echo Park. Covid shuttered Adamae, which inspired Glaser and Francesconi to ask themselves an important question: “What do we truly want to open?” The answer was Donna’s.
“Let’s do the idea we’ve been talking about for 20 years,” Francesconi says, going all the way back to the USC dorms. “We know that when we infuse a space with our interests and wants instead of trying to architect something out of the zeitgeist or trends, [the concept does] really well.”
And so Donna opened this summer, in a cozy, kitschy, playful space that exudes serious “grandma’s house” vibes. And it’s not just the ambiance — the food is soulful Italian staples like meatballs, garlic bread, and pasta in red sauce, along with an approachable wine list, classic cocktails, and inventive spritzes.
Now, if only a reservation were as easy to come by as an invitation to nonna’s kitchen. If you do manage to snag a spot, here’s everything you need to know.
1. Donna who?
Though she lends her name to the restaurant, and is the inspiration for both the menu and the overall decor, Donna is not a real person. In developing the concept and its backstory, Glaser and Francesconi came up with this fictional character — “A woman from New Jersey who just hosts the best dinner parties and gives you a little too much wine and food,” Glaser says. “She’s a kind of spirit animal to wrap the concept around, imbued with a sense of generosity and giving.” The result is very much a neighborhood restaurant where “the portions are nice, and the price points aren’t crazy high,” Glaser continues. “You want to cultivate regulars and have the kind of place where servers are going to know you — not some absolutely perfect, market-tested, zeitgeisty hot spot.”
2. The menu plays the hits.
Chef Sathia Sun earned his chops at other fine Italian restaurants around L.A., notably Felix and Union. “Almost everything on that menu should be familiar, but it also should be the best version of that thing that you’ve ever had,” Glaser says. Take the garlic bread, for example, which he describes as the Platonic ideal of the form: Thick-cut sourdough slices smothered in garlic, oregano, and enough Parmigiano cheese to make a dairy farmer blush. The chicken parm has already become a fan favorite, and the fusilli alla vodka with whipped ricotta is not to be skipped. End with a tiramisu topped with amaro and Cognac-infused cream for dessert.
3. The bar highlights Italian cocktails.
Donna’s bar program is run by Karla Flores-Mercado, who partnered with Park Hospitality on Bar Flores, her eponymous space upstairs. “Most of the things on Donna’s bar menu are going to be relatively familiar to you: Negronis, martinis, spritzers,” Glaser begins. But Flores-Mercado has been experimenting with “a lot of Italian spirits, and the amaro and vermouth worlds,” he adds, teasing at playful variations still to come. As for the wine, it mirrors the food menu in that it’s simple yet enjoyable — you won’t be overwhelmed with a novel-length wine list, but rather just a few bottles that are versatile and pair with most palates.
4. The aesthetic is lived-in and a little Grandma-core.
“We had our GM’s family in from Connecticut, and they were like, ‘Wow, this feels like grandma’s house,’” Glaser says with a laugh. “It’s not that we wanted to [recreate] Grandma’s house, but it is a room where someone cares about the space. It’s not meant to feel transactional, it’s meant to feel lived-in and warm and welcoming.” To achieve that, Donna’s collaborated with Aero Collective on the design. The wallpaper is a colorful, maximalist print of florals, vegetables, and fruits. Glass and porcelain trinkets adorn the shelves above cozy, dark wood tables and booths. To further amp the intimate environs, the team subdivided the space into several smaller nooks with different seating areas, and built curves into the details. “The mirrors are all rounded, there’s a rounded arch in between [the bar and dining room], and there’s a rounded soffit over the bar,” Francesconi says.
5. The entire complex operates as a whole.
Since buying the building in 2017, Park Hospitality has spent over six years developing the restaurants on the property — Bar Flores upstairs, Lowboy next door, and now finally Donna’s. “We want to get very confident and comfortable with the amount of concepts we have right now and continue to improve them and make them the best versions of what they can be,” says Glaser. With Flores-Mercado running the bars, and chef Sun in the kitchens, “there is this interest in marinating on the bigger picture here because we really want to develop people,” Francesconi says. “We want to create an organic way for people to come in as bar-backs and to eventually run businesses with us.”
Oren Peleg is a journalist and screenwriter. He currently contributes to Eater LA, Los Angeles, The Infatuation, and hosts the Not Billable podcast. You can follow him here. While you’re at it, follow Resy, too.