Roberto Donna in better days, working in his cutting-edge restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Laboratorio del Galileo. (BILL O'LEARY/1999 TWP)

The manager zipping around Galileo III is multi-tasking like mad on a Tuesday night in mid-August. She not only seats guests in the half-empty dining room but also mixes them cocktails, because the bartender is apparently AWOL. As if that weren’t enough, she also takes orders and even runs food from the kitchen, where her boss, chef Roberto Donna, looks to be straining with a limited staff himself.

The current menu at Galileo III mirrors the downsizing in the kitchen and dining room. What was once a robust, sometimes adventurous 24-dish dinner menu when the place opened in early October has been whittled to 18 simpler plates, not one of which is Donna’s signature (and time-consuming) risotto. Other plates are missing in action as well, notably an intricate savory pudding with fresh burrata and porcini cream that the critics loved as well as an organ-meat tasting menu.

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.

illustration of Roberto Donna for 8.24.11 Food (Jonathan Twingley for The Washington Post)

“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.

Sending a message

Officials with Shorenstein, the San Francisco real estate giant that partly owns SRI Six Hamilton Square, declined to comment, but restaurant veterans say SRI’s quick-on-the-trigger lawsuit was designed to send a clear message: The landlord is not going to cut Donna any slack, no matter how influential he may be in Washington dining circles.

Experienced restaurateurs will tell you that lawsuits such as SRI’s are a common tool to instill fear in a negligent tenant. And sure enough, SRI’s lawsuit led to a November agreement between the parties to deal with the debt, according to court records. But by January, SRI was back in court alleging that RCR hadn’t honored that agreement. In February, a judge ordered RCR to pay $137,693.98 in back rent, and in June, SRI filed an official writ of restitution to evict Galileo III.

When contacted by phone on Aug. 10, Donna begged off on answering questions. “You have to talk to the owner, not me,” said the chef, referring to RCR owner Corrado Bonino. “I just do the menus.” Donna did say, however, that he has not been asked to vacate the space at 600 14th St. NW. “Tomorrow, I don’t know,” he added. The landlord confirmed that it has not asked Donna to leave yet.

Donna’s attorney, Danny Onorato, declined to comment for this story.

Donna may be clinging to his lone restaurant, but other Galileo III employees are not. They have been leaving the place since its first months of operation. Chef de cuisine Claudio Sandri, who also cooked for Donna at Bebo Trattoria, was the first high-profile employee to go; he departed around November to take a job in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Contract pastry chefs Wendi James and Joshua Jarvis decided to split in late December. Night manager Walter Gianfranchi and hostess Maria Baldo left in March. Bar manager and beverage director Chris Cunningham said goodbye in April. Other waiters and cooks followed suit.

Cunningham, the bar manager, said he spotted trouble from the moment he started working at Galileo III in September. There were no sign-in sheets for new employees to log their hours. There were no applications to fill out. There was, to the new beverage director’s way of thinking, no direction whatsoever. Donna “didn’t want a centralized GM for the place because he was running the show,” Cunningham said. “So it was just disarray.”

The post-dating game

Things got worse as the weeks went by and the restaurant opened. Cunningham had to push management for his paychecks. They always had excuses for why they couldn’t pay, he said. When he did get a check, typically handwritten, Cunningham was frequently told either to cash it right then or to wait for a specific day.

But even when told what day to cash it, Cunningham would sometimes discover there wasn’t enough money in the account to cover his check and the others issued for the same day. Experience taught him to rush to the bank on the assigned cashing day to make sure he’d be among the first to get paid. “I’d get my check, and I’d [race] across the street and cash it,” said Cunningham.

The practice of post-dating checks or assigning specific check-cashing days was common, noted Cunningham and others. “Not once was I allowed to cash [the check] the day I got it,” former hostess Baldo said. “I’d say, ‘Are you serious? I need this cash.’ And they’d say, ‘If you do, it will bounce.’ ”

“They were holding you hostage on every paycheck,” pastry chef James said flatly.

The frustration over paychecks sometimes led to dramatic measures by the staff. They would threaten to quit or not come in to work until management cut them a check. The cooks and dishwashers also had another way to rebel, said James: They would leave the kitchen a mess at the end of their shift. “It was the dirtiest kitchen I ever worked in,” she said. “The line cooks were like, ‘If I wasn’t getting paid, I wouldn’t clean [the kitchen].’ ”

Almost all of the opening day staff members would eventually leave Galileo III; their departures would then begin another chapter in their relationship with owner Bonino: The former employees would regularly have to fight for their outstanding paychecks and/or tips. Several of them, tired of the battle, turned to small claims court to collect the pay they said was owed them; they include two waiters who filed this month.

Waiter Tito Munoz sued RCR in June after spending weeks trying to collect the $1,000 that he said Galileo III owed him. “I could not work for these people anymore,” said Munoz, who left in May. “I couldn’t take the fact that they didn’t pay.” He eventually settled for $550. “I was like, ‘Give me whatever, and forget about it.’ ”

Paying his debts?

If both employees and landlord have struggled to collect their money, where exactly have Galileo III’s revenues been going, especially during the early months, when the place was still cruising on Donna’s return to the kitchen and favorable reviews? The money is not going to 12 former employees who successfully sued Donna in U.S. District Court for labor and wage violations tied to Bebo and the former flagship Galileo on 21st Street NW. Denise Clark, lead attorney in the case, said the plaintiffs have not seen a cent since December, when Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Donna to pay more than $527,000 in back pay, damages and legal fees. Donna never appealed the decision.

Some money is trickling into the coffers in Arlington County, where Donna pleaded guilty last year to felony embezzlement for collecting county meals taxes at Bebo but never remitting the money. County Treasurer Francis X. O’Leary says Donna has paid about $7,000 on his outstanding tax bill of $156,330, which is slightly ahead of the court-ordered schedule of $500 a month. Then again, if Donna doesn’t pay, he goes to jail.

But at the current rate of repayment, Donna will never satisfy the debt. The county treasurer said he just learned that Donna’s outstanding debt is accruing interest at a rate of 8 percent a year: Over the first year of Donna’s repayment plan, the amount he owes has actually increased by more than $5,000. That is important because it affects another outstanding debt that Donna owes in Virginia: a $375,000 bill for back state sales taxes at Bebo. The chef doesn’t have to start paying his back sales taxes until he clears his meals-tax debt.

“I think the judges don’t necessarily think through the mathematics,” O’Leary said.

Donna’s court-ordered debt in those three cases alone stands at more than $1 million; he has paid, as of mid-August, just $7,115.

Both attorney Clark and treasurer O’Leary have, at one time or another, been frustrated in their attempts to find assets in Donna’s name that they can seize. “Nailing him is like nailing mercury to a board,” the treasurer said, noting that many of Donna’s assets are in his wife’s name. Clark added that there’s no court-ordered repayment plan in the federal case, but she hopes to change that in the future.

Securing assets could also present a problem for any potential Galileo III creditors. Bonino, not Donna, is the owner of RCR, and Bonino does not live in the United States. He lives in Italy.

The Bonino connection

Bonino’s business dealings with Donna have come under legal scrutiny more than once. In 2009, the American arm of an Italian wine-exporting business sued Donna, Bonino and others in D.C. Superior Court over a $500,000 loan to help Galileo on 21st Street emerge from bankruptcy. Donna and his company at the time, SER Corp., were accused of not making a payment on the loan for two years, putting them in default. Three years earlier, a related lawsuit had also accused Bonino, Donna and others of defrauding the same Italian-based company out of at least $415,000 in wine, the majority of which was sold to Galileo between December 2005 and June 2006.

Donna, Bonino and the other defendants eventually settled the loan lawsuit and, as part of the confidential settlement, the Italian company agreed to drop the wine fraud case. Regardless, the accusations in the suit were blunt: Jack Meyerson, the Philadelphia attorney who represented the Italian nationals, said some proceeds from the wine sales to Galileo never reached his client but were kept by the defendants for their own use. There are also hundreds of thousands of dollars still unaccounted for in the case, “which remains the subject of ongoing litigation in Italy,” Meyerson added.

Now as owner of Galileo III, Bonino and his accounting staff at the restaurant control the cash flow. Bonino never agreed to an interview for this story after several e-mail inquiries. He did answer one e-mail to say he was on vacation and couldn’t respond.

So what is Galileo III’s future? Some restaurant veterans speculate that, given the poor economy, landlord SRI might be willing to give Bonino, Donna and RCR another chance. The theory is that pennies on the dollar are better than nothing at all, especially for a downtown location that doesn’t offer restaurateurs much foot traffic. But should Galileo III close, like Bebo before it, opinions are mixed on whether Donna could revive his career one more time in Washington.

Frederick resident Hilda Staples, an investor and fundraiser who has helped Bryan Voltaggio (Volt), Mike Isabella (Graffiato) and R.J. Cooper (Rogue 24) open high-profile restaurants, said she wouldn’t touch Donna’s next venture. “You have to look at the chef’s history, and he’s not had much success and I have no idea why,” she said. “It would be very hard.”

At the same time, Staples and others say, there are always investors willing to bankroll a celebrity chef just for the thrill of entertaining friends at the restaurant. “I know for a fact that there are big pockets out there . . . that just want to hang out with big-name chefs,” Staples said.

Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.