Remembering Donna Scala

donnaThe last time I saw Donna Scala, co-owner with husband Giovanni of Napa’s popular Bistro Don Giovanni, she was full of plans to renovate the restaurant.

Which is notable mainly because she’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor and given just months to live. That was earlier this year and as it turned out the end was even nearer than we thought. She died today.

I knew Donna only as a customer; for about the last 12 years I’ve been meeting a group of friends at the bistro for lunch once a month. But even that limited contact made a huge impression. Short, bubbly and blonde, Donna could fill up any room. You could always tell if she was in the house by the throaty, sexy laugh emanating from the kitchen. (Or, if things weren’t being run in keeping with her high standards, the equally recognizable sound of a sinner being summarily set straight.)

But any storms soon blew over and Donna would be back doing what she did so well, circling the restaurant, stopping to hug regulars and catch up on the latest from the many wine country boldface types who frequent the bistro. If there was something new on the menu, Donna made sure you at least had a taste. And she always had something pertinent to say about whatever was the topic du jour in the Napa Valley.

For me, a person who carries the scars of eating lunch alone in the girls’ bathroom for all of 9th grade (High school: The worst, non?), it was a special thrill to be greeted by Donna, ever-glamorous in her crisp chef’s whites (often with a hint of lace peeking out at the lapel) and shorty Western boots. I quoted her a few times in stories about California food and wine and was always tickled by how open and funny she was.

The last time she stopped by our table we knew she was ill and she knew that we knew. But we talked mostly about other things, including her plans to update the restaurant. Just for a moment she looked at us and her eyes shone with unshed tears. “I love you all,” she said.

And we loved you, Donna.