Food  |  News & Politics

The Wild Ups and Downs of Celeb Chef Roberto Donna

The Galileo star is back in the kitchen—yet again.

Photograph courtesy of Roberto Donna.
  • 1984 | A Star Is Born

    The 24-year-old Italian chef—who moved to DC from Europe four years prior—opens Galileo, an Italian spot in Dupont Circle that becomes DC’s hottest restaurant. Vice President George H.W. Bush famously fails to score a last-minute table.

  • 1991 | Primo Donna

    As Donna moves Galileo into a larger space, Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman calls him “a national treasure.” By that point, he’s well into establishing his empire, which will ultimately include 11 area restaurants (I Matti, Barolo, Arucola) and about 500 employees.

  • 2004 | Trouble in Paradiso

    Did he expand too quickly? Galileo’s parent company, SER Inc., files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, facing nearly $2.5 million in debt plus accusations of unpaid taxes and wages.

  • 2006 | Goodbye, Galileo

    Donna’s flagship eatery and its famed Laboratorio tasting room are shuttered. Donna bounces back with the casual Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City—which itself closes in 2009.

  • 2010 | Out of the Frying Pan . . .

    Donna’s woes escalate. He pleads guilty to embezzlement for failing to turn over more than $150,000 in meal taxes from Bebo. Six months later, a judge rules that he must pay nearly $527,000 to 11 former employees who sued over unpaid wages and tips.

  • 2011 | Third Time’s No Charm

    Galileo III—intended as a comeback—is a flop, shutting down less than a year after opening. Donna wasn’t the owner of this iteration, sticking to the kitchen as a salaried employee.

  • 2012 | Back in Action

    Restaurateur Hakan Ilhan opens a place—eventually named Al Dente—near AU Park, with Donna handling the food. Fans are impressed, including Esquirecritic John Mariani, who names him chef of the year in the magazine’s Best New Restaurants issue.

  • 2019 | Arrivederci, Al Dente

    Donna quietly leaves his latest kitchen gig. During the pandemic, he and wife Nancy Sabbagh sell packaged meals and host virtual wine events.

  • 2022 | Vienna Waits for You

    Now the chef is making yet another comeback, slinging pasta at the new Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano in Vienna. Technically, his wife owns the place. Donna is, once again, the chef.

Timeline photographs courtesy of Roberto Donna.
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.