Celebrity chef Mario Batali, whose career crumbled amid several sexual misconduct accusations, pleaded not guilty Friday to a charge he forcibly kissed and groped a woman at a Boston restaurant in 2017. Batali, 58, didn't speak during the brief hearing but nodded as the judge ordered him to stay away from the woman. The court entered a not guilty plea on Batali's behalf to a charge of indecent assault and battery, the AP reports. It's the first criminal charge levied against Batali following sexual harassment and assault allegations that first surfaced in 2017. The woman says Batali noticed her taking a photo of him at the restaurant and invited her to take a selfie with him. She says Batali then groped and kissed her repeatedly without her consent. The woman filed a civil suit against Batali in August, seeking unspecified damages for "severe emotional distress."
Batali didn't comment as he walked through a slew of reporters to leave the courthouse Friday. His lawyer said earlier this week that the charge is "without merit." "He intends to fight the allegations vigorously and we expect the outcome to fully vindicate Mr. Batali," attorney Anthony Fuller said in an emailed statement. The woman's attorneys applauded the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office for bringing the case. "Mr. Batali must be held accountable criminally and civilly for his despicable acts," her lawyers said in an email to media. Batali could face up to 2 1/2 years in jail if convicted and would also have to register as a sex offender. He was released on his own recognizance and will not have to appear at the next hearing, scheduled for July 12. (Read more Mario Batali stories.)