DC’s celebrity chef ventures to Vienna with a future Italian restaurant

The face behind Vienna’s new Italian restaurant is well known to foodies in the DC area.

Currently taking shape at 144 Church Street NW, Roberto’s Italiano Ristorante comes from Nancy Sabbagh and her husband, chef Roberto Donna, who won both fame and infamy over his decades-long culinary career.

Sabbagh, who owns the restaurant and will run its business operations, says the Roberto’s concept is something she and her husband have been considering for some time based on their past trips to Italy.

“We knew we wanted to work together where I would be the front of house and Roberto the creative culinary vision,” she said via email. “We both love Italian hospitality and really wanted to create a little place where our guests would feel the love in both their service and their food.”

Sabbagh told Tysons Reporter that all permits have been approved and she tentatively hopes to be able to open in early February.

Fairfax County records show a final occupancy permit for Roberto’s was processed and pre-issued Jan. 20. Liquor license applications have been pending since Dec. 13, according to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.

Drawn to Vienna for “the charm and sense of community it exudes”, Sabbagh says she and Donna considered taking the space at 144 Church Street before the pandemic, but the arrival of Covid led them to pivot instead of providing weekly family meals and host virtual wine dinners.

Roberto’s took on new life late last year when Asian restaurant Red Galanga closed Dec 1 after five years at 144 Church Street, citing staffing shortages.

While Covid has presented obstacles to opening a new restaurant, Sabbagh says the City of Vienna has been “so helpful” in providing assistance during the permitting process.

While she didn’t provide specific dish details, she says Roberto’s will be offering a aperitif time, tastings, oenological dinners, private events, catering as well as à la carte and take-out menus. Donna will also provide table service.

“Roberto’s will offer diners truly authentic Italian cuisine and a menu that reflects the season and showcases local and truly excellent vendors,” Sabbagh said. “We are honored to be neighbors to such fine restaurants as Bazin’s, Blend [111], Clarity, Bonaroti and Pazzo Pomodoro.

Originally from the Piedmont region of Italy, Donna launched her career in the United States with the People’s Galileo, which opened in DC in 1984. It won a James Beard Award in 1996 and has mentored many chefs who have continued to open their own restaurants.

However, legal issues began to overshadow his food in the late 2000s. He faced a string of lawsuits over unpaid rent and wages and pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2010 to pocket food taxes from the closed Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City.

Donna made a comeback, however, in 2013 with a well received chef’s counter at Al Dente DC, and Roberto’s looks like a more low-key personal affair.

According to Sabbagh, the restaurant’s art and decor will pay homage to her and her husband in Italy during their 20 years of marriage.

“We can’t wait to really have fun working together,” she wrote. “That’s life and providing our customers with great food, service, wine and hospitality!”

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