Restaurateur, golf pro, classic Porsche and motorcycle restorer, loyal friend? The next Major Tom?
Asked where he met Michael “Mickey” Donatello, John Schulte responds with a deadpan “astronaut school.”
Donatello, 50, is the kind of guy who could be an astronaut if he put his mind to it, Shulte says. But actually, the duo—creators of the retro Lucky’s Coffee Shop, the modern, sophisticated Corner Bistro, and new owners of the gourmet café Bon Appétit (blocks from each other along the Concord Pike corridor)—became friends in the 1980s through a mutual love for food, drink and golf.
At the time, Schulte was a seasoned golfer who could easily outplay the 20-something Donatello. But the latter surprised Schulte one day by casually remarking, “I like this. I think I’m going to be a golf pro.”
“I watched with growing respect as he actually did it,” Schulte says.
Donatello joined the Professional Golfers Association in 1998 and over the next 14 years moved through the Newark Country Club, the DuPont Country Club, Fieldstone, and Ed Oliver Golf Club. (Among his pupils was Georges Perrier, the famous restaurateur and creator of the Philadelphia dining institution Le Bec-Fin.)
That’s “quintessential Mic,” his friends say. Donatello doesn’t follow a formula. Once he discovers what he wants, there’s no challenge he won’t take on—often surpassing others with specialized training, thanks to his acumen and ability to drill down into a subject or activity, according to Schulte.
So in 2002, when Donatello the career golf pro did an about-face and said he’d like to open a restaurant, Schulte knew he would.
Donatello laid out his concept to Schulte, who by then was an experienced restaurateur with five projects under his belt, including Scratch Magoo’s in Trolley Square and Tyler Fitzgerald’s in Pike Creek. Within a year, the Corner Bistro, with its clean, contemporary décor and fresh, inventive food, launched. It got a robust reception and has sustained its popularity.
Four years later, Donatello was on the hunt for a place to play out a completely new creative vision. Soon, Lucky’s, with its open kitchen, signature furniture (including a disco ball by the bathrooms) and a banana cream pie suited to the retro diner vibe, was born. It, too, became a Concord Pike icon.
Donatello is always on the lookout for the next challenge. Take his passion for restoring classic Porsches and motorcycles, for instance. He’s on his fifth Porsche—a 2002 Porsche 911. And he’s on his fifth bike—a 1988 Yamaha FZ-600. “I get one, pour my heart and soul into it, but as soon as it’s done, I don’t want it anymore,” he says.
Schulte knows the signs, and that’s what makes him a great partner, says Donatello.
“Recently, I was spending a lot of time looking for a half dozen chairs for the Bistro bar. I kept sending John pictures and asking him what he thought of this or that. Finally, he’s like, ‘What’s with the chairs? Are you bored?’ Yep. I’m bored.” (Which proved to be perfect timing, because Bon Appétit was about to become available.)
As a young man, Donatello says he never imagined becoming a restaurant owner, but the love was there. He started working at H. A. Winston’s at 16, and stayed until he mastered each job in the house: bar back, receiving, dishes, wait staff, host, bartender, and every station in the kitchen. He went to Antonelli Institute in Erdenheim, Pa., to study photography, but restaurants kept calling him back. Even as a golf pro, the country club kitchens drew him in.
Donatello’s creative clarity is remarkable, says Mary Austin, longtime friend, golf buddy, sometime housemate, and owner of Mary’s Café in Trolley Square. He’s a modest man, careful not to inflate his credentials, but on this point, he agrees.
“I walk into a space and I know what it’s going to be, what needs to be done. What people need to see and feel and eat,” he says. The Concord High School grad, raised in North Wilmington in a DuPont Company family, also understands the local market. He says Wilmington wants the comfort of home—not too quirky, not too bland.
“People here know good food, so if you’re predictable, they’ll head to a kitschy chain. You can’t create too much novelty either, because they want familiar, not exotic at home. When they want novelty, it’s 30 minutes to Center City Philadelphia.”
Donatello has a recipe for “home” but clearly it’s not set in stone, because the Bistro and Lucky’s are nothing alike. The paradox, the magic that he’s so good at, his friends say, is creating a comfortable experience that resists being cliché or boring through the judicious use of unique, fun, or “wow factor” touches. The touches show up in flavors, décor, operations, messaging, and elsewhere—it’s all fair game.
Case in point: when scouting furniture for Lucky’s, Donatello found an authentic Eero Aarnio white “ball chair” with red interior, a 1960s Industrial Design period classic. It was $5,000, but he knew that piece would come to represent Lucky’s like nothing else. He was right.
He’s a master at pulling off a risk, because he has a way of keeping his touch on everything at once, says Alice Zino, who supplies him with Island Beverage Company teas. For example, at Lucky’s, says Zino, “there’s a lot of pink hair, tattoos and nose rings”—even among front of the house staff. “That’s common in Philly, but progressive for Delaware,” Zino says. “It works, I think, because of the way the menu is worded.”
Wait, what? Menu descriptions balance out nose rings?
Absolutely, according to Donatello. The elements come together in a “we don’t take ourselves that seriously” vibe. Guests relax—and have a good laugh over the menu. It includes puns, pirate references, and descriptions like, “that cheese with the holes,” “meaty and cheesy, just like our chef,” and “Really, you’re still reading this?”
It’s fascinating to watch Donatello put together a concept, a room, even a plate of food, Schulte says.
The key is knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not, Donatello says, and having a stellar team to rely on. That’s why he trusts Schulte’s business savvy, even when it reins in his creative urge. “I wouldn’t dream of doing a thing, not a single furniture purchase, without John’s OK.”
It’s also why Donatello has no desire to emulate his idol, Stephen Starr, owner of dozens of over-the-top dining and entertainment venues in Philadelphia, New York City, Ft. Lauderdale and Atlantic City. “Starr is a machine. I love creating an atmosphere, too. But I immerse myself and don’t want to move on too quickly. I never wanted to be that.”
He also wanted a good relationship with his daughters, Tess, 11, and Sydney, 9. Work is busy but flexible, Donatello says. He gets them to extracurriculars; they hang out after school wherever he’s working. When they were young, they’d tag along in the garage as he worked on one of his classic cars, or whatever he was into.
Donatello’s devotion as a father shocks Austin, his friend of three decades.
“He raced go-carts, rode motorcycles, drove fast cars,” Austin says. “He was not a kid guy. When we taught the youth Sports Academy at DuPont, he’d get frustrated. The little ones wiggled, didn’t remember what you told them. I never thought he’d be a kid guy, but today he’s more so than any of my other friends. He’s a fabulous father.”
Family was a big reason Donatello left golf for food; he and his wife of 14 years, Lori, knew the “no such thing as weekends” life of a pro had to be over when kids came.
The latest Schulte-Donatello venture, Bon Appétit—purchased from longtime friend Louisette Amblard—is a departure. This time, it’s not about creating a concept; it’s about preserving one.
Why take it over then? The answer illustrates another side of Donatello: he’s quietly and deeply loyal to his friends and community. For 28 years, Amblard gifted local foodies with a bit of her homeland through the authentic French market and café. But it was time to slow down after she took a fall, and Donatello didn’t want Wilmington to lose this treasure.
“The mustards, cheeses, meats, fresh baked goods—it’s comforting knowing this place is here,” he says. “I’m not Mr. Nostalgia, but if I want a really good baguette and pâté, where else am I going to get it?”
Fine, but how does a guy with such a strong vision run three very different concepts? Fortunately, he’s not a micro-manager, Austin says.
He keeps a pulse on what’s going on by dropping in and installing a light fixture rather than descending on the scene to check up on employees. He hires competent staff and they stick around, in what is a transient industry. He hires staff with less experience so they can absorb his vision. For these reasons and more, they often become “disciples of Mickey,” Schulte says.
Yes, [there will be a new project]. What it is, I have no idea. I’ll know it when I see it.
One area where Donatello is absolutely hands on: dealing with disgruntled guests.
“I am happy being in the background when things are going well, but I want to be the one to personally smooth things over” when it goes wrong, he says. For two reasons: he’s the bottom line, and maintaining good relationships with neighbors is important. It’s different in a town like Ocean City, Md. Even if there’s an egregious mistake, a manager might only knock a drink off the bill, since there are 100 tourists outside waiting for a seat. Says Donatello: “At my place, everyone at the table would eat for free.”
Zino agrees, but adds that Donatello is not a “suck it up, the customer is always right” kind of boss. For example, when Lucky’s had been open a year, Zino saw a couple being very rude to a server. To their astonishment, Donatello invited them to leave and never come back.
With Donatello, expect creativity, expect a passion that sees a project from concept to completion. But don’t expect him to settle into the same thing forever.
Is there another project on the horizon for Donatello?
“Yes,” he says emphatically. “What it is, I have no idea. I’ll know it when I see it.”
That’s par for the course for the ex-golf pro.
“Mic is brilliant, charismatic, enigmatic and fascinating every day,” Schulte says. “I could ride on his coattails forever. But one day if he says he’s going to astronaut school, this [restaurant life] will be done and gone. In Mic’s world, it could happen.”