The wine list has suffered even more casualties. There isn’t a bottle of Barbera d’Alba in the house, and the Chiantis are in such low supply that a frustrated diner tells his waiter, “Bring me whatever bottle of Chianti you still have.”
And if you pull back the lens a little further, to get a wider view of Galileo III in downtown Washington, you begin to see even deeper cracks in the restaurant that was supposed to mark Donna’s triumphant return to the kitchen — and to respectability after all the lawsuits, all the debts and all the complaints about his last restaurant, in Crystal City. Not even a year into its existence, Galileo III has been sued multiple times in D.C. Superior Court. The complainants are all looking for the same thing: the cash they claim is owed them.
It’s a grim legal reality that runs counter to the image of a humble, hard-working chef trying to make amends for past sins. Or trying to reclaim past glories. It might be helpful to think of the 50-year-old Donna this way: He was Jose Andres before Jose Andres. Donna was, in other words, a celebrity chef and an empire builder who, at one time in the 1990s, had 11 restaurants to his name and nearly 500 people in his employ. His flagship, Galileo on 21st Street NW, helped earn him a James Beard Award in 1996 and, a year later, a nod from Wine Spectator as one of the 10 best Italian restaurants in the United States.
“I observed the effect he had on other chefs and the restaurant community,” noted former Post restaurant critic and Food editor Phyllis C. Richman. “He was an important figure.”
But by last fall, Donna had only one restaurant, his third iteration of Galileo. The chef appeared on Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s online chat in December to take reader questions and promote the new place. “I am here working hard and being [a] responsible person and working on repaying and making amends,” Donna wrote. “People learn from their mistakes, let’s not dwell on the past and [I’m] looking forward to a brighter responsible future!!”
What Donna didn’t tell readers that day, however, was that Galileo III was already in trouble. The restaurant had been sued before it even opened. On Sept. 24, landlord SRI Six Hamilton Square filed a complaint against Galileo III’s owner, RCR LLC, looking for more than $250,000 in rent, landlord allowances and other fees. In the coming months, former employees would likewise start using the courts to get their hands on money they claimed was due them. The circumstances would seem to echo similar events that led to the downfall of Bebo Trattoria, Donna’s restaurant in Crystal City, which closed in April 2009 amid a rent default of $500,000 and a federal lawsuit alleging labor and wage violations.