Starting from scratch

After debt and legal issues, Roberto Donna starts from scratch with Galileo III

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

The recipe for opening a successful restaurant generally does not call for stewing in federal court.

But there was Roberto Donna -- the renowned Italian chef who is racing to revive his former flagship restaurant, Galileo, along with his own battered reputation -- in Courtroom 22A at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington on Wednesday, his brow furrowed, his massive arms folded.

Donna, an outsize figure in the food world whose financial and legal problems have blown up like a souffle in recent years, sat alone at the defendant's table, no longer able to pay a lawyer to defend him. Across the room sat three ex-employees who say Donna violated labor laws and owes them and eight other plaintiffs thousands of dollars each. Theirs is one of a slew of lawsuits, tax problems and other complaints that have hit Donna in the past few years.

"There's this much truth," Donna said angrily weeks earlier, holding his hands just inches apart as he left another hearing at the courthouse, "and the rest is lies."

Donna once cooked nightly for politicos, celebrities, Beltway power brokers and just plain foodies at Galileo and its wildly acclaimed, cutting-edge restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Laboratorio del Galileo, both of which closed in 2006. Galileo was such a hot reservation in the '80s that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush famously couldn't get a table. Lately, however, the chef has spent far more time in law offices and courtrooms than in the kitchen, particularly since his last restaurant, Bebo Trattoria, went belly-up in April 2009 after falling deep into debt, including a half-million dollars in unpaid rent.

Now, the beleaguered James Beard Award-winning chef slouched in his chair as he listened to his former personal assistant and publicist testify about payroll and accounting problems at Bebo, the Crystal City restaurant that closed last year despite having opened to critical praise. "You can point your finger anywhere on the menu," Washington Post dining critic Tom Sietsema wrote in 2006, "and come up with a success story."

At Bebo, former employee Elizabeth Scott said, paychecks bounced, some checks were distributed without Donna's signature, pay periods kept shifting. Earnings were underreported, and employee withholdings weren't sent to the Internal Revenue Service. Donna listened to the litany of allegations and shook his head, apparently in disgust.

In a deposition last fall, Donna, 49, said he is reduced to paying "my expenses to survive." He testified that he was four months behind on his $9,500-a-month mortgage; he owed at least $70,000 on credit cards; his leased Hummer was being repossessed; he'd stopped making $2,000-a-month payments on taxes he owed to the IRS; and he was being sued, "like always" -- this time by a Galileo investor.

At the very moment when Donna was stuck in the courthouse, on the ground floor of an office building just a mile away, contractors worked on what the chef hopes will be his grand comeback stage, Galileo III. After repeated delays, its opening in the 14th Street NW space that once housed the restaurant Butterfield 9 is said to be weeks away.

It might be the city's most anticipated opening of the year, but not merely because of Donna's dazzling culinary skill, which in 1991 inspired Washington Post dining critic Phyllis Richman to write that "Roberto Donna has practically become a national treasure."

Whereas Washingtonians once discussed the greatness of Donna's risottos and house-made pastas, the chatter about him now often centers on his court cases and debts -- for instance, the $157,984.21 he owes to Arlington County, where the commonwealth's attorney prosecuted Donna for collecting meal taxes at Bebo but neglecting to turn them over to the county. Donna pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement in June and received a suspended five-year sentence.

Donna's treatment of employees is at the heart of allegations in two federal cases. In Virginia, five former Bebo workers last year won a judgment against Donna, who was ordered to pay them nearly $25,000 plus more than $17,000 in attorney's fees.

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