Arriving at Donatelli’s in White Bear Lake, patrons are greeted by 41 years of rich history. You can see it on the walls, decorated with images of the Pink Panther (or the Italian Panther as he is referred to at Donatelli’s), on the faces on the longtime staff and in the intimate booths—tucked snugly against the walls, dimmed lights hanging over them to create the mood. These booths are often dotted with regulars, some have been visiting Donatelli’s ever since co-owner Steve Donatelli bought the White Bear Lake restaurant.
The air at Donatelli’s is thick with the smell of gooey, melting cheese—a staple in many dishes—spicy pepperoni, rich bacon and the sweet aroma of rising dough. But the recipes that produce these tantalizing smells came from surprisingly humble beginnings. “I made spaghetti sauce twice before I bought the place,” says Donatelli. “I’d never made pizza before except for Gino’s out of the box.” The staff created many of the recipes, and a fair number of these staff experiments have become staples on the menu, now 13 pages long. In 2008, four items from Donatelli’s were featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, including their meat-filled creation The Heart Stopper pizza. After the show aired, one customer flew to Minnesota on a private jet just to eat at Donatelli’s.
But it’s more than just these original dishes luring customers back. “People are more than a number,” says co-owner Trish Appleby. “The servers know [the customers], and if they don’t know their name, they know what they’re drinking.” Appleby and Donatelli can often be seen making the rounds at the restaurant, offering customers a joke, smile or meal recommendation.
And just as their delectable dishes have become a tradition, 10 years ago, another tradition was born at Donatelli’s: fifth graders from Willow Lane Elementary School in White Bear Lake came to Donatelli’s to experience working in the restaurant for a day. The kids are tasked with writing a cover letter, resume and completing a five-minute interview, including questions like, “Who is someone you admire outside of your parents?” or “If you were in a movie, what kind of movie would it be?” The students then act as servers, seat customers and work in the kitchen. “These kids come and they shine,” says Appleby.
Donatelli’s is also active in the catering community. A small room, tucked in the back of the restaurant, is reserved for tastings. The walls are brimming with thank you notes from satisfied customers, as well as quotes like, “Nothing jumpstarts a marriage like a hot Italian affair.” They cater everything from weddings to funerals to corporate events. One September day, Donatelli’s managed to cater five full-service weddings all at once.
It’s these relationships that have kept Donatelli’s a lively space. “They come with their kids. They come when they get married. They come when their parents die. They come on their first date,” says Appleby. “We’ve had a lot of memories here.”
Fun Food Stats
- Donatelli’s uses 55,000 pounds of mozzarella cheese in a year—more than the weight of a Greyhound bus.
- Donatelli’s produces about 7,500 gallons of red sauce in a year, which is close to the capacity of a semi truck.
- Over 110,000 man-hours are worked in a year at Donatelli’s.
A Taste of Italy
Woven into the 13-page menu at Donatelli’s is a delicious assortment of one-of-a-kind dishes. Thirteen pages can be overwhelming for first-time customers, so the folks at Donatelli’s pointed us in the direction of some of their favorites.
Spaghetti Pie (Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives)
The person who thought to combine spaghetti and pie must have been a culinary genius—or possibly a comfort-food connoisseur. A rich crust of homemade spaghetti noodles is layered with creamy cottage cheese and topped with Donatelli’s signature sauce. Layers of gooey mozzarella and cheddar cheese provide the finishing touch. This masterpiece is served with garlic toast and is rich enough to share, but delicious enough to indulge in all on your own.
Twisted Mac ’N’ Cheese
A humorous note in the menu warns the Twisted Mac ’N’ Cheese is not Weight Watchers approved. This dish combines four types of cheese—Velveeta, cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella, swirled together with cream to create the sauce—this dish packs a cheesy punch. Cavatappi pasta, sausage and tomatoes are thrown into the cheese mixture, and the dish is then baked to perfection.
The Heart Stopper (Featured on Diners Drive-Ins and Dives)
Meat lovers rejoice—Donatelli’s has answered your pizza prayers. This hearty pizza is topped with sausage, pepperoni, ground beef, ham and smoked bacon. It’s then topped with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese.