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Prima Donna

The (literal) trials and tribulations of a Washington chef.

11:30 AM, Aug 9, 2010 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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There once was a time when Roberto Donna was the toast of the town. The Turinese chef and restaurateur ran the flagship Galileo, Bebo Trattoria (a favorite of Justice Scalia's), and, over the years, places like Il Radicchio, Arucola, i Matti, and Primi Piatti. That was then.

Prima Donna

Today Donna is a broke man. His only source of income at the moment is teaching cooking classes at his home. His restaurants have been shut down. He owes money and is being sued by former employees. The bookkeeping is a mess—numerous workers and vendors have complained about bounced checks. Two months ago he pleaded guilty to embezzlement. The IRS is after him. The County of Arlington is after him. But as he stated in court, "I cannot afford to pay them now." And yet Signor Donna remains hopeful that his latest restaurant, Galileo III, will open in a few weeks. Needless to say, some people are skeptical.

In yesterday's Washington Post, J. Freedom du Lac laid out the story thus far. It's a good read and a cautionary tale about the temptations and perils of overexpanding. What is not in question is Donna's skill as a chef (he even made it onto Iron Chef America, though he didn't fare well). But as Tony Spagnoli, a former chef for Donna, explained to the Post, "Just because you're a good chef, that doesn't make you a good businessman."

Donna was supposed to talk to the Post but ultimately decided against it, stating to them in an email: "A story just before I open a restaurant I think is not fair. . . . Restaurant is already a super difficult business and to want to sabotage it before it opens I think is not the right thing to do to me. I gave all 49 years of my life for cooking!!!!"

Which is unfortunate—at least for Donna: The chef gets grilled by the people on his case:

"He seems to have everybody and their brother after him," said Arlington County Treasurer Frank O'Leary, who noted that Arlington has yet to receive a dime from Donna after his conviction. "I almost feel sorry for the guy. But every single one of these problems, he brought on himself. This is not an innocent, good-natured chef who got in over his head. Roberto Donna deliberately cheated people. Now he's getting his just desserts -- and I don't mean Jell-O."

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