Celebrity chef Mario Batali was found not guilty Tuesday at a bench trial on charges of indecent assault and battery related to the alleged groping of a star-struck patron at a Boston restaurant in 2017.
Judge James Stanton noted Batali’s conduct was “not befitting of a public person of his stature” that night five years ago but said his accuser has “significant credibility issues” that supported the defendant’s “contention that her motive was financial gain.”
Batali, wearing a sport coat, smiled after the verdict and thanked his attorneys. His accuser hurried out of the courtroom as soon as the judge declared the defendant not guilty.
The verdict came one day after Natali Tene took the stand at Batali’s criminal trial in Boston, testifying that he groped her during an impromptu selfie session.
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden, in a statement, said the verdict was disappointing and that his office “will not waiver in our support for the victim in this case.”
“It can be incredibly difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault,” Hayden said. “When the individual who committed such an abhorrent act is in a position of power or celebrity, the decision to report an assault can become all the more challenging and intimidating.”
Hayden said he was grateful to the accuser for coming forward and “to every survivor of sexual assault.”
Tene said she posed for photos with Batali while, out-of-frame, he took advantage of her as she stood close to him.
“His right hand is all over my breasts, all over my rear end, all between my legs,” Tene said.
Batali was charged with indecent assault and battery, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.
He denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. Defense attorney Anthony Fuller told the court the “photos and videos don’t support her testimony.”
Batali waived his right to a jury trial. He was charged in 2019 and faces a civil suit over the same incident.
Stanton called Batali’s conduct “a lesson for all of those people in public or celebrity positions” and said he “paid a high cost in terms of diminished reputation and financial loss.”
But the municipal court judge said the case was about credibility and called Tene’s conduct as a sworn juror in another case “egregious and … offensive to the rule of law.” He said testimony about an alleged scheme by Tene to evade a $200 gym membership with a “fictitious legal document” also damaged her credibility.
“These were just two of the issues but they were significant in the mind of the court. And they support the defendant’s contention that her motive was financial gain,” Stanton said.
Multiple allegations against Batali – a chef and restauranteur who appeared on television cooking shows for decades – surfaced in 2017 after the restaurant news website Eater reported four accounts of women who claimed Batali “touched them inappropriately in a pattern of behavior that appears to span at least two decades.”
Batali stepped away from public view in the wake of the allegations and his restaurant group cut ties with him in 2018.
The New York Police Department reviewed sexual misconduct allegations against Batali, but closed its two investigations in 2019 without filing charges.
Tene testifies she was ‘nervous, shocked, alarmed’
The evening started, Tene testified Monday, when she met a friend on March 31, 2017, at Towne Stove and Spirits, a restaurant in Boston.
Tene recognized Batali taking a seat near her at the bar, she said. She tried to covertly take a photo of him, she testified.
Tene said her friend told her Batali caught her sneaking the picture. Tene walked over and apologized to Batali, she said, promised to delete the photo.
Tene then took about 10 selfies at around 12:37 a.m, she said, and their heads, faces, shoulders and whatever could fit in the frame were visible.
“He has his face pressed up against mine and he’s pulling my body closer to his,” she said.
“He’s kissing the side of my face. He has his other arm wrapped behind me,” Tene said.
“His hands were in sensitive areas, touching me, touching my body,” she said. “It was like a selfie, but other things were happening simultaneously … His other hand that can’t be seen is touching my body in sensitive areas.”
Batali kept asking to take more selfies, she said.
“It all happened so fast and it was happening the whole time, in different parts,” Tene said.
Tene noticed Batali’s eyes weren’t open in some of the photos and he reeked of alcohol, she testified.
Batali then allegedly asked Tene to come to his hotel room, she testified, saying she got chills when he asked.
“Kind of like, mortified, disgusted,” Tene said.
Tene left and went back to her house. Later, she told her friend about the alleged attack and the pair agreed to never eat again at Eataly, an Italian food market then co-owned by Batali.
Tene said she spoke to a journalist at Eater, detailing her account after a story about other women who had been allegedly grabbed by Batali.
Tene filed a civil suit, she said, but insisted she isn’t looking for money.
Defense questions motives, photos
On cross-examination, Fuller, the defense attorney, went through each of the images Tene took and focused on one photo that showed space between where they stood, highlighting the floor tile between her and the chef.
“He was grabbing you, pulling you closer, was he?” asked Fuller, who said there was roughly eight inches of space between the pair.
“He definitely was,” responded Tene.
“Doesn’t look like it in this photo,” Fuller said.
“He’s grabbing my ass,” Tene said.
Fuller noted a gap in time between the first batch of photos and the second batch, three minutes later. Fuller argued the gap in time showed she wasn’t in danger. He also challenged Tene on her facial expressions, saying she wasn’t grimacing but smiling.
Tene was also questioned about eating at Batali-owned restaurants, even though she told investigators in a deposition the thought of eating at those restaurants was disgusting. Fuller showed her bank statements that revealed she ate at Eataly with a friend who knew about the alleged attack.
On Tuesday, before the verdict was announced, Tene’s friend, Rachael Buckley, testified that her friend told her about the alleged sexual assault about a week after it happened. They talked for an hour.
“I think she was pretty uncomfortable,” Buckley said. “But uncomfortably trying to laugh it off, as if it wasn’t a big deal. But it struck her as a big deal later on.” The witness said she felt a civic duty to testify about what she learned.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Courtney Caruso sought to show inconsistencies in Buckley’s testimony. At one point the lawyer read a 2018 text message exchange in which the two women discussed a civil suit against Batali.
“Dude, well at least you might get a chunk of change from the settlement,” Buckley wrote in a text.
“Hopefully dude” Tene replied.
CNN’s Jean Casarez contributed to this report.