Passionate Napa Valley chef Donna Scala succumbed to cancer at her Napa home Tuesday morning. Diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor last year, the popular, industrious restaurateur had celebrated her 60th birthday earlier this year.
With her husband, Giovanni, Scala set the bar for restaurant dining in wine country with the launch of the Piatti restaurant chain in Yountville in 1987, followed by opening Bistro Don Giovanni on Highway 29 in north Napa, a favorite with locals and visitors alike since 1993.
A native of Roanoke, Va., Scala grew up in the restaurant business, working with her grandfather and father in a Greek eatery popular with residents of northern Virginia. She relocated to the Bay Area in 1982, opening a novel French- and Italian-inspired gourmet shop in Sausalito.
The young businesswoman met her life partner, Giovanni Scala, in 1986. Subsequent trips to Italy resulted in close ties to her husband’s Neapolitan family, particularly his mother, Concetta, who shared her culinary skills and recipes with her daughter-in-law. Scala would incorporate what she learned into her restaurant menus. In fact, “Concetta’s meatballs” remain a staple of the Bistro Don Giovanni menu today.
Scala’s menus and her husband’s front-of-the-house skills combined to keep “the Bistro” on numerous best of the Bay Area restaurant lists.
The couple also opened Scala’s Bistro in San Francisco in 1995, a project they ran for several years, one that earned them national acclaim. Scala also worked with the Hilton hotel chain to develop signature dining concepts at properties in San Francisco and Florida.
“Donna created a culture which thrives on excellence where no detail or quality ingredient is spared,” noted best friend Barbara Beltaire, of La Jolla. “If there is but one word to describe Donna, it’s passionate.
“Long before farm-to-table, Donna had a vegetable garden outside the back door of the Bistro’s kitchen, providing the restaurant with the best of seasonal ingredients. The Bistro is the pinnacle of Donna’s professional life.”
“All she ever wanted to do was make people happy,” declared Big Ranch Road neighbor Ken Monnens. “She accomplished that with her food, her stories and her friendship. She leaves a great legacy.”
Fellow restaurateur Gene Tartaglia, owner of Napa’s Q Restaurant & Bar, said he started every day by talking to Donna Scala. “No matter who called whom, it was our first conversation of the day. She was one of the most dynamic people in the valley. She created a great place for people to gather, and she trained and taught countless people who came to her kitchen.
“They don’t make ’em like Donna anymore ... friends like that aren’t replaceable. I hope that we all remember the integrity she had and carry it forward in our lives.”
Wine industry doyenne Margrit Mondavi recalled Scala’s “unique lust for life ... she contributed so much to happy hours (spent) in private or in the restaurant — they will never be forgotten. What a privilege to have known her. God bless her soul. My thoughts are now with Giovanni.”
“I am just heartbroken at the loss of our beloved, exuberant, cherished Donna,” added vintner and friend Beth Nickel. “She had such a joy for life, her family and friends, cooking and sharing her happiness. There will never be another one like her and we were all blessed that we had her as such a wonderful part of our community for the last three decades.”
Calling her loss “heartbreaking,” former restaurant partner and chef Scott Warner maintains Scala “had more spirit and energy than anybody I know. She was the most immense force in my life ... she made me want to be a better man. She passionately drove the restaurant ... her spirit was infectious and it will continue to live in so many people that she touched.
“Donna inspired people to do the best they can. She’ll always be around. I grew to love working with her and all the people at the Bistro, so I’m coming back to the restaurant in May (to keep Scala’s legacy alive).”
“She made every visit to Bistro Don Giovanni special,” noted San Francisco plastic surgeon Bruno Ristow. A former grapegrower who’d also been a neighbor to Scala, Ristow said he developed a “strong friendship with the chef ... I admired her generosity, her spirit and certainly the high quality she presented in her cuisine. She was truly special. Napa won’t be the same for me without Donna.”
"As far as restaurateurs go, Donna was the gold standard,” added public relations executive Tom Fuller. “Whenever anyone would ask about my favorite restaurants, or 'where do the locals go?', the answer always included Bistro Don Giovanni. That doesn't happen without a reason. Donna and Giovanni created that perfect combination of incredible food, wine and service that attracted fans from all over the world, while maintaining a local vibe. I believe that will continue at Bistro Don Giovanni. Donna’s spirit will remain, and she will be missed.”
Scala is survived by her husband, Giovanni; sister Debbie Laratta; nephew Kristopher Laratta and his wife, Jamie.
Services and a life celebration for Donna Scala are pending and will be announced at a later date.