“Yes it is true the owner [Corrado] Bonino has closed. Unfortunately the current economy and avalanche of negative articles [in the Post] did not assist in the matter,” the James Beard Award-winning chef wrote via e-mail. “At this time, I ask for some courtesy by discontinuing the pursuit to get Roberto and allow me my privacy in moving forward in my life.”
The announcement came somewhat as a surprise to the landlord, SRI Six Hamilton Square, where a spokesman declined to comment on the situation, although the spokesman noted that SRI had not formally asked Galileo III to vacate the space. SRI, however, did file a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court before Galileo III even opened in October 2010, looking for back rent that the company claimed was owed it; former employees likewise started using the courts to try to get the cash they said Bonino owed them. The problems seemed to echo earlier troubles that Donna had at the now-shuttered Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City.
It’s not exactly clear what day the restaurant officially closed. At least two former employees say the restaurant shut down on Monday, but manager Karen Audia Shannon said that Galileo III was serving on Wednesday. Regardless, a sign was posted on the restaurant’s front door, noting the place would be closed for lunch and dinner on Thursday as well as lunch on Friday. It gave no indication of a problem, but Galileo III’s phone rolled over to a voicemail that explained: “We have a little maintenance and repair situation going on.”
“My heart bleeds,” said chef Enzo Fargione, who was once a partner in six restaurants with Donna in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the long-gone Barolo on Capitol Hill. “Roberto was and still is my mentor, a friend. Mostly what it means to me is an end of an era.”
“Roberto is not the Roberto that I know and love and have known for the past 20 years. I guess he got caught up into something that I would like to think he doesn’t even understand,” said Fargione, who’s working to open his own place even as his mentor closes his.
“And the second is because he has produced an incredible amount of great, talented and skilled professional chefs. They have all been through his kitchen,” Fargione added. That list includes not only Fargione himself, but also Todd Gray at Equinox, Amy Brandwein at Casa Nonna and Martin Lackovic at Siroc.
Another longtime Italian chef, Peter Pastan of 2 Amys and Obelisk, believes Galileo III’s closing marks more than the (potential) end of the Roberto Donna era in Washington.
“It’s the end of the Jean-Louis era as well,” said Pastan, invoking the late Jean-Louis Palladin, the famous French chef at the Watergate who mentored many young chefs in the District, including Donna.
“When Roberto first came here…he did not have a lot of experience in the food world, and his vision was pretty old school,” Pastan said. “Jean-Louis really in a lot of ways had an enormous influence on how Roberto cooked and still does.”
Pastan believes Donna may be “the last guy in town” who still channels the influence of Palladin.
Galileo III’s closing would appear to dry up Donna’s principal source of income, even though the restaurant probably generated little cash in its final weeks when the dining room was half-full or less. The chef, according to his Web site, was still hosting cooking classes at his home in McLean. The prices are not listed, but in the past the classes have fetched upwards of $140 per person.
When asked about his future, Donna replied via e-mail: “Still too early for plans.”
Local industry watchers have mixed opinions about whether Donna can reinvent himself one more time in the Washington market. The chef has, at this point, opened and closed more than a dozen restaurants.
“He’s probably reaching the end of his rope here,” said Joe Spinelli, president of Restaurant Consultants, Inc., in College Park. “There’s just so many other better brands out there that don’t carry the baggage he does.”
Still, noted Spinelli, “I’ve seen a lot a restaurateurs who have lost restaurant after restaurant” and still land back on their feet.