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Woman testifies that Chef Mario Batali was ‘grabbing me in a way that I was never touched before’

Chef Mario Batali (center) is seated next to defense attorney Anthony Fuller (left) at Boston Municipal Court for the first day of Batali's trial on Monday in Boston.Steven Senne/Pool

The woman accusing celebrity chef Mario Batali of sexually assaulting her in a Boston restaurant in 2017 testified Monday that he grabbed her “in a way that I was never touched before.”

On the first day of Batali’s indecent assault and battery trial, Natali Tene, 32, described her encounter with Batali in explicit detail, saying he grabbed her breasts, buttocks, and groin as they took selfies at Towne Stove and Spirits in the Back Bay.

“It was all happening so quickly, and it was happening essentially the whole time,” she testified. “I shouldn’t even say in which order. But there was touching of my breasts. Touching my sensitive feminine areas in between my legs. Touching all over my face. His lips on the side of my face. His tongue in my ear. Just a lot of touching.”

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A television personality and successful restaurateur, Batali waived his right to a jury trial, leaving the verdict to Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton. The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday. If convicted, Batali faces a maximum sentence of 2½ years in prison.

But Batali’s lawyer raised questions about Tene’s credibility by confronting her with texts in which she joked with friends about the encounter with Batali and talked about profiting from it by suing him and selling her photos of him.

In a text exchange several months after the April 1, 2017, encounter, a friend asked Tene if she still had her photos of Batali and could send them to him.

“Of course I do,” Tene responded, texting him three photos of Batali. “Hahaha, hilarious.”

Tene said she didn’t recall sending the texts, which were pulled from her phone after a judge ordered her to turn it over for forensic analysis. She acknowledged some of the messages appeared to undermine her credibility but said she had difficulty talking about the assault, which sometimes came across as “flippant.”

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But in his opening remarks, Batali’s lawyer, Anthony Fuller, said she had made up the story altogether in hopes of profiting from it.

“The defense, in this case, is very simple. It didn’t happen. By the end of it, you’ll realize she’s not telling the truth. We will show you substantial evidence that she has concocted this whole story.”

The criminal case is the latest of several sexual assault complaints against Batali, whom former first lady Michelle Obama chose to oversee the Obama administration’s final state dinner in the White House in 2016. The following year, the trade publication Eater published allegations from several women that Batali had engaged in a pattern of inappropriate touching. Batali stepped away from his business after the allegations.

In court, Tene said she went to the restaurant around 9:30 p.m. on March 31 and spent several hours socializing with a friend. Shortly after midnight, she spotted Batali sitting at the bar and snapped a photo of him over her shoulder. Batali beckoned her over and Tene said she apologized for taking the photo without his permission and promised to delete it.

But Batali said he wasn’t bothered by it and suggested they take selfie photos together. The photos, which began around 12:30 a.m., showed the upper part of both of their bodies as well as Batali’s left hand, she testified.

“Can you tell us what his right hand was doing?” asked Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Nina Bonelli.

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“His right hand was all over my breast. All over my rear end,” she said. “He was grabbing me in a way that I had never been touched before. Squeezing in between my legs.”

Batali was drunk and smelled of alcohol, she said, and asked her to come to his hotel room at the Mandarin Oriental. But she broke off the encounter and left the bar with her friend, she testified.

In an aggressive cross-examination, Fuller accused Tene, who works in the software industry, of fabricating details of the encounter in hopes of collecting money from Batali. He said text messages between Tene and her friends showed that she saw an opportunity to make money after she learned other women had accused Batali of assault.

Tene said she confided in a friend that Batali had assaulted her about a week after it happened, but didn’t go public with her allegations until she saw the story in Eater about allegations by other women. She called the reporter and asked her friend to do an interview corroborating her claims.

“Just play up the story,” the friend wrote in one message. “Of course,” Tene responded.

In one text, she discussed trying to get $10,000 for her photos of Batali.

“I thought celebrities, when they get in trouble, that’s just how it works,” she testified.

She later reported the assault to the Boston police, leading to Batali’s arrest, and filed a civil suit against him that is pending.

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The texts uncovered on Tene’s cellphone also triggered an inquiry in Middlesex County, where she served on a jury in 2018. In the messages, she acknowledged she had tried to avoid jury duty by claiming she was clairvoyant. She pleaded guilty to contempt of court Friday in Middlesex Superior Court for violating the judge’s instructions while sitting on the jury and the case was continued without a finding — meaning it will be dismissed after two years if she stays out of trouble.

She also admitted she had her mother fake a real estate lease that she submitted to a gym so she could break her membership contract without being charged a $200 cancellation fee.

Through her attorney, Tene granted the Globe permission to identify her as Batali’s accuser. The judge has ordered media covering Batali’s trial not to photograph or film Tene when she is on the witness stand or in the courthouse.

When asked why she is pursuing the civil case against Batali, Tene said “this happened to me and this is my life.”

“And I want to be able to take control of what happened. And come forward, say my piece, get the truth out there. And hold everyone accountable for their actions. I’ll be accountable for my actions and everyone in this room can be accountable for their actions as well,” she said.

“Are you just doing this for money?” Bonelli asked.

“No, absolutely not,” Tene said.

In 2018, the New York Times and CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported on complaints of sexual assault against Batali. The following year, the New York Police Department closed investigations into sexual assault allegations against Batali because detectives could not find enough evidence to make an arrest, the Times reported.

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Last year, Batali, his business partner Joseph Bastianich and their New York City-based restaurant company, B&B Hospitality, agreed to pay $600,000 in connection with a four-year investigation by the New York attorney general’s office, which had looked into allegations of sexual harassment made against Batali in 2017, the office said in a statement.

The money would go to at least 20 former employees who endured a “hostile work environment that permitted a sexualized culture of misconduct and harassment,” according to the statement, plus the company had to revise training materials, and submit regular reports to the attorney general.

John R. Ellement and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.