Why Mario Batali’s Acquittal Feels Hollow

Following a two-day trial that’s been delayed since 2019, a Boston judge found Mario Batali not guilty of indecent assault and battery on Tuesday. The charges stemmed from a 2017 incident in which Batali was accused of forcibly kissing and grabbing the genitals of a woman he met at a now-shuttered Boston bar, one of a series of allegations from employees and fans that suggested a pattern of inappropriate behavior stemming back two decades.

When news first broke of Batali’s behavior in 2017, he admitted that “much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted.” Thereafter, he issued a lackluster apology and “got canceled.” Batali lost his job as host of the popular talk show The Chew, and eventually divested from the restaurants that he co-owned with Lidia and Joe Bastianich, including much-lauded New York eateries Babbo and the now-shuttered Del Posto. Batali and Bastianich’s former restaurant group, B&B Hospitality, reached a $600,000 settlement with the New York attorney general in 2021 affirming that, for many years, Batali and Bastianich fostered a work environment “that permitted a sexualized culture of misconduct and harassment.”

Batali’s was the first restaurant industry #MeToo case to make its way into a criminal courtroom, presenting a rare opportunity for one of the countless victims of harassment in the broader restaurant industry to find justice with meaningful consequences for the alleged perpetrator — if found guilty, Batali would’ve faced jail time and been required to register as a sex offender. And still, despite the gravity of these allegations, almost no one was surprised when Batali was acquitted. That’s because yesterday’s verdict starkly reveals the extent to which the court system has produced a lot of truly unsatisfying outcomes in adjudicating cases involving long-term patterns of sexually inappropriate behavior. (Batali still faces a civil lawsuit stemming from the same incident.) So where do we — and Mario Batali — go from here?

With his acquittal, it’s likely that Batali will, at least in some sense, get the redemption that he seemed to be courting in 2018 and 2019 when he began exploring new business ventures. Because he has been found “not guilty” of the charges surrounding this single incident, some have already popped up in Twitter mentions to argue that Batali was a victim of an “overzealous” #MeToo movement, and that kind of public support could pave the way for a return that would allow Batali to profit from the reputation he built as a chef. Even if he may not have the same opportunities to open top-tier restaurants in New York City, there’s nothing stopping him from launching his own line of frozen lasagnas or jarred pasta sauces at supermarkets much less fancy than the first U.S. location of Eataly, which he once co-owned. Or maybe he’ll go the route of John Besh — who stepped away from his New Orleans restaurant empire after a litany of harassment allegations but did not sell off his ownership stake — by quietly investing in restaurants helmed by other chefs who haven’t been “canceled.”

There is at least some precedent for this kind of return to favor. In the food world, there’s the case of Paul Qui, who in March 2016, was arrested after an incident in Austin where he was accused of beating and bloodying his girlfriend in front of her child. The charges were dropped two years later, with prosecutors citing a lack of cooperation from the complaining witness, and Qui said that he hoped to “move forward” from his alleged bad behavior by opening an exciting new restaurant, which spurred an instant backlash. Despite all that controversy, Qui is still running and opening new restaurants in multiple cities across the country.

But here’s what I hope happens: Mario Batali goes quietly into that good night. We never have to see his big red beard or his stupid Crocs, which he wore to court by the way, on TV or on a package of pasta ever again. He’s a 61-year-old man with a net worth estimated at more than $25 million, which has surely dwindled during these past few years but should still be plenty of money for him to fuck off to the Amalfi Coast to live a life of quiet reflection instead of continuing to operate restaurants.

To be clear, Mario Batali has admitted, in response to allegations of sexual misconduct in a 2017 Eater report, that he went “too far in my own behavior,” and the judge in this case acknowledged that the chef “did not cover himself in glory on the night in question.” And because the courts have proven woefully inadequate when it comes to adjudicating cases of sexual misconduct, especially sexual harassment, those of us who are disgusted by the allegations against these powerful men have to find recourse wherever it exists. We can withhold our dollars, we can protest restaurants and investors that do business with Batali, and we can make abundantly clear that this type of alleged behavior is unacceptable from others who seek the same level of fame and admiration.

Batali has demonstrated that he can’t be trusted to honor the boundaries of the people who work for him or consider themselves fans. Whether or not the reprehensible behavior alleged by his workers rises to the level of criminality required to find him guilty in a courtroom, it should certainly disqualify him from even more time in the limelight as one of the country’s most beloved food personalities.