The celebrity chef Mario Batali, 61, is not guilty of indecent assault and battery, a Boston judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge James Stanton delivered the verdict in Boston Municipal Court after a day and a half of trial testimony, mostly from Natali Tene, 32, who said Mr. Batali forcibly kissed her and grabbed her during a late-night selfie session at a Boston bar in April 2017. “I’ve never been touched before like that,” she testified, “like squeezing in between my legs, squeezing my vagina to pull me closer to him, as if that’s a normal way to grab someone.”
The judge said, “It’s an understatement to say that Mr. Batali did not cover himself in glory on the night in question.” But he added that Ms. Tene “has significant credibility issues.”
Mr. Batali, 61, smiled and resigned as the judge acquitted him of the charges. Mr. Batali did not testify, and his defense team called no witnesses. If he had been found guilty, he would have faced up to two and a half years in jail and have been required to register as a sex offender.
In his closing arguments, his lawyer, Tony Fuller, said, “She lied for fun and she lied for money,” referring to the lawsuit Ms. Tene has filed against Mr. Batali.
Mr. Batali, once the host of the ABC daytime talk show “The Chew,” is one of several prominent chefs and restaurateurs hit by accusations of sexual assault and harassment in the restaurant industry that began tumbling out in the fall of 2017 as part of the #MeToo movement in cities like New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. He is the only one to have faced criminal charges.
Only two witnesses testified during the trial, both for the prosecution. Ms. Tene, 32, who works in the software industry, spent most of the first day on the stand, explaining her encounter with Mr. Batali late one evening at Towne Stove and Spirits, a bar in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston that has since closed.
Mr. Batali saw her surreptitiously shoot a photo of him from a few seats away at the bar, then invited her to come over and take some pictures with him, she said. As the photo session began, she testified, so did the forced kissing and groping.
The only other witness called was a friend of Ms. Tene’s, Rachel Buckley, 37. She said Ms. Tene sent her a picture of Mr. Batali the night of their encounter, along with texts that described him as appearing extremely drunk but didn’ t mention his grabbing her. Details of the groping and kisses from Mr. Batali came up in subsequent conversations, Ms. Buckley testified.
Much of the evidence in the trial came from two years’ worth of Ms. Tene’s text messages, which sometimes showed her being flippant about selling the photos or getting money from Mr. Batali. They revealed incidents in which she lied to get out of a gym membership and told another court that she was clairvoyant as a way to try to avoid jury duty. The judge noted those lies, and photos from the night at the bar that showed her smiling after her first encounter with Mr. Batali. Three minutes later, she took more selfies with the chef.
“Her reaction or lack thereof to the alleged assault is telling,” he said.
Mr. Batali’s lawyers pulled the texts from her phone, which a judge ordered her to turn over as part of a lawsuit she filed against Mr. Batali in 2018. Both prosecutors and her lawyer fought to prevent the forensic analysis of her phone.
In closing arguments, Mr. Fuller said the images from her camera phone from that night show “an entirely consensual encounter between the two.”
“In her world, the truth is a flexible concept,” he said. “It doesn’t really exist. She’ll say whatever helps her in a moment.”
Prosecutors countered by saying that the images did not show the entirety of the interaction or where Mr. Batali’s hands were below the frame. Texts between friends that made jokes about Mr. Batali or possible payment for the images after the incident were just that, they said — jokes. And Ms. Tene’s smiles from her in the selfies did n’t mean she had n’t been assaulted. They were awkward attempts to de-escalate the situation, Nina Bonelli, the Suffolk County assistant district attorney, said in her closing arguments.
“The kissing, the pulling, the groping — she never asked for it,” Ms. Bonelli said. “She never wanted and she never consented to it. All she wanted was a selfie.”
If the case were only about money, she added, Ms. Tene would not have waited so long after that night to sue. And Ms. Tene told her story of her to the publication Eater only when she realized other women were coming forward.
“This wasn’t some isolated incident,” Ms. Bonelli said. “This was a sexual assault that happened to her de ella and maybe others.”
Trish Nelson waited on Mr. Batali and has described incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the Spotted Pig, a favorite Manhattan playground of Mr. Batali and a number of other well-known chefs, musicians and sports stars. The abuses there were revealed in a New York Times article in 2018.
She said she wasn’t surprised at the verdict. “In this country women basically have to be on the path to sainthood in order to be taken seriously and allowed to speak ill of a man’s abusive behaviors, especially a powerful one,” she said.
Tales of Mr. Batali’s late-night drunken parties and brutal behavior with women had circulated for years, but in the wake of investigations into Harvey Weinstein and others like the New Orleans chef John Besh, several women came forward publicly and accused Mr. Batali of sexual harassment on the job, and other forms of sexual abuse.
Allegations about Mr. Batali’s behavior first came to public light in December 2017, when four women told Eater that he had touched them inappropriately as part of a pattern of behavior that they and others said spanned at least two decades.
At the time, Mr. Batali offered an apology. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.” It was attached to a newsletter that also included a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls that was widely mocked.
Much has changed in the following years. The New York Police Department investigated three sexual assault complaints against Mr. Batali, but a department official confirmed in 2019 that it had closed those investigations because of a lack of evidence and the statute of limitations.
Later that year, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, said the businesses built by Mr. Batali and a former partner, Joe Bastianich, revealed a sexualized culture so rife with harassment and retaliation that it violated state and city human rights laws.
As part of a settlement, the two men and the company they once owned together, paid $600,000 to be divided among at least at least 20 women and men who were sexually harassed while they worked at the Manhattan restaurants Babbo, Lupa or Del Posto, which , until it closed permanently in April 2021, was the crown jewel among the men’s holdings.
Catherine McGloin contributed reporting from Boston.