Roberto Donna in better days, working in his cutting-edge restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Laboratorio del Galileo. (1999 photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Hakan Ilhan, the owner of the local Pizza Autentica chain, has signed a one-year contract with the James Beard Award-winning Italian chef to head up the kitchen of a 116-seat restaurant called La Forchetta (formerly Balducci’s) at 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW. The restaurant, which will feature a wood-burning pizza oven and two open kitchens, is expected to serve fresh fish and house-made pasta and sausage – “Italian country, family-style,” says Donna -- as early as the end of March.

At the encouragement of friends following the closure of Galileo III and after a raft of money and legal woes , Donna left Washington for Scottsdale, Ariz in January to accept a job with the Bice Group , a global chain of Northern Italian eateries.

Ilhan, who owns 21 Washington-area food businesses, including three Café Cantinas, three Einstein Bros. Bagels and Gelato Dolce Vita in Georgetown, says he reached out to Donna when his idea for another pizzeria evolved into a more formal sit-down establishment. “There are a lot of good chefs,” the Turkish entrepreneur could have interviewed, “but they don’t have the name recognition Roberto has.”

In some quarters, Donna is as infamous as he is talented. “Roberto is going to be successful” this time, says his new employer, who plans to keep the chef away from anything to do with “paying people or suppliers.”

“I am going to be the cook and Hakan is going to be the business guy,” says Donna, who flies back to Washington on Wednesday.