Donatella Trotti, Owner of Magnolia's Nonna Tatta, Shares Her Story

With her traditional trattoria becoming a Fort Worth staple, owner Donatella Trotti serves up Cowtown’s most stubbornly authentic Italian cuisine. Just don’t arrive craving fettuccine Alfredo.

Long before Magnolia Avenue became the retail and real estate hotbed it is today, Donatella Trotti took a chance on opening a small Italian restaurant there in a tiny, ramshackle building that was all but falling apart. There were no cool coffee shops on Magnolia at the time, no lines for barbecue, no retail stores selling designer shoes or taco pop-ups peddling designer tacos.

Now surrounded by condos and hip restaurants and cool bars, in one of the fastest developing neighborhoods in Fort Worth, Trotti’s pindot of a restaurant, Nonna Tata, is still going strong. And over the years, Trotti has established herself as one of the best chefs in Fort Worth, a spitfire who won’t waver an inch in her efforts to bring authentic Italian flavors from her homeland to ours.

On the eve of the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, of which Trotti is a featured chef, she shares the secret of her success.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw the Nonna Tata building?
A: I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. It was the Summerhill House, a diner that had been open for 35 years. Luckily, it came up for sale a few months later. I did not want to open if I had to lease, as I was pretty sure I was going to close in a year, and I did not want to get stuck with rent.

Q: It wasn’t exactly ready to roll. 
A: The building had to be completely redone inside. The bathroom had carpet, like everything else, and it opened to the kitchen. There was no room to have any commercial equipment, so I had to make the dining area even smaller than before. The outside of the building was kept the same but for the color — it used to be white. And the windows had plastic panels since the previous owner was tired of replacing them every time they got broken. I kept the original door that was stripped of seven coats of paint. It’s had at least a couple hundred hours of work done to it and still does not work properly!

Q: What was your upbringing like?
A: I grew up in Varese on the border with Switzerland; I lived there most of my life. We were a family of four: mama Mirella, papa, Tita and Paola, my sister and best friend. I was lucky enough to be exposed to excellent food since I was born. Everybody in my family really knows how to cook, and we always had wonderful gatherings that would require many days of prepping in the kitchen. 

As kids, we were not allowed to take on important jobs [in the kitchen], but I remember being very proud when I was eventually allowed to finish the ravioli, making sure no air was left inside so they would not break in the water.

Q: You didn’t plan on being a chef? 
A: No, I never thought I would become a chef. I studied political science and then fashion design, both in Milano. At the age of 30, I was getting bored. I always loved the U.S. after I did an exchange with a girl from New Jersey when I was 17. I was determined to come and stay for a while, but I never thought about moving here permanently. Then I had an offer to work for a company that was opening stores for Versace. My name being Donatella and my background in fashion, they thought I was perfectly qualified. 

Q: What drove you to start cooking?
A: Ever since I moved to the States, I started cooking and feeding friends. My training was my mom, on the phone. We spent hours on the phone talking about how to make bechamel or the ragu for her wonderful lasagna. My husband suggested I open a restaurant so we could finally charge our friends for food. We were living in Dallas at the time, and he was a lawyer in Fort Worth. He said I should try to open something here. I instantly fell in love with Fort Worth. 

Q: You don’t think of Nonna Tata as a restaurant? 
A: It is a trattoria, a simple place, definitely not fancy, but the food is good. We make everything from scratch. We start in the morning, making our own focaccia bread and then everything else. It is Italian, not Italy-American. If you ask for a carbonara with chicken, you will get the chicken on the side. I refuse to kill a good pasta.