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Famed D.C. chef ventures into Vienna with upcoming Italian restaurant

The face behind Vienna’s newest Italian restaurant is a familiar one for D.C.-area foodies.

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

Sabbagh, who owns the restaurant and will run its business operations, says the concept for Roberto’s is something that she and her husband have been contemplating for a while based on their past travels in Italy.

“We knew we wanted to work together where I would be the front of the house and Roberto the creative culinary vision,” she said by email. “We both love the Italian hospitality and truly wanted to create a small place where our guests felt the love both in their service and 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 that a final occupancy permit for Roberto’s was processed and pre-issued on Jan. 20. Applications for alcohol licenses are pending, as of Dec. 13, according to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.

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

Roberto’s took on new life late last year, when the Asian restaurant Red Galanga closed on 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 Town of Vienna has been “so helpful” in providing assistance during the permitting process.

Though she didn’t provide details about specific dishes, she says Roberto’s will offer an aperitivo hour, tastings, wine dinners, private events, and catering as well as a la carte and to-go menus. Donna will also provide some tableside service.

“Roberto’s will provide diners with truly authentic Italian cuisine and a menu that will reflect the season and highlight local and truly excellent vendors,” Sabbagh said. “We are honored to be neighbors with such good restaurants like Bazin’s, Blend [111], Clarity, Bonaroti and Pazzo Pomodoro.”

A native of Italy’s Piedmont region, Donna launched his career in the U.S. with the popular Galileo, which opened in D.C. in 1984. He won a James Beard Award in 1996 and mentored many chefs who went on to open their own restaurants.

However, legal troubles started to overshadow his food in the late 2000s. He faced  a slew of lawsuits over unpaid rent and wages and pled guilty to felony embezzlement in 2010 for pocketing meals taxes from the shuttered Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City.

Donna made a comeback, though, in 2013 with a well-received chef’s counter at Al Dente D.C., and Roberto’s sounds like a more low-key, personal affair.

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

“We look forward to truly having fun working together,” she wrote. “That is what life is all about and providing our guests with great food, service, wine and hospitality!”

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