W. Pa. restaurant owner takes heat over social media posts where he’s dressed as Health Secretary Levine

(Photo collage by the Pittsburgh Current)

(Updated, 11:51 a.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, Pa. It was earlier updated to include comment from Robert Portogallo, owner of Protogallo’s Peppers N’at, who issued a statement saying that he had “removed all of the Dr. Levine posts on my Facebook page and personal page.  My intent was not to upset anyone but to get a laugh out of the situation.  If people found my humor to be in poor-taste I apologize to those individuals I am sorry if I offended anyone with these posts.”)

By Charlie Deitch

BRADDOCK, Pa. — A local restaurant owner is being criticized for Facebook posts in which he wears a wig and impersonates Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.

Robert Portogallo, the owner of Portogallo’s Peppers N’at, has a number of posts in which he dresses in a blonde wig and pretends to be Levine.

One includes side-by-side photos of Portogallo and Dr. Levine. Over one of the posts, Portogallo marks his status as “feeling amused.” Others are videos of Portagallo wearing the wig and dancing around his store. The posts were made Friday on Portogallo’s personal Facebook Page which is public. As of Sunday night, the posts were still up.

Others were not amused.

“I will never return to Portogallo’s because of some recent bigoted posts made by Robert Portogallo on his personal page,” wrote vocalist and artist Phat Man See (also known as Mandy Kivowitz) “As a musician, I know how important it is to accept and celebrate people for who they are, and not insist they change to fit my limited understanding of the world. I am sorry the owner doesn’t feel the same way. I will absolutely not be returning until he makes a public apology to Dr. Levine and the trans community.”

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

Braddock resident and educator Janet Wilson Carter wrote: “Poor form…poor taste. And this is not the first time this person has made highly offensive and even, racially charged comments. I, for one, will never spend a dime in this ‘establishment’ and I certainly wouldn’t recommend any of my friends, acquaintances, or family members spend their money there, either. Braddock is a lovely town, but all it takes is one rotten apple to halt positive movement.”

Under the posts, dozens of people laughed at Portagallo’s posts and criticized anyone who tried to point out why the posts were wrong. Many intentionally used the wrong pronoun when referring to Levine, a trans woman.

The Current also reached out to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who not only works directly with Levine, but is the former mayor of Braddock.

“I have the daily honor and privilege of serving with Dr. Levine. We are lucky to have her in our service. Her actions have undoubtedly saved many lives in PA.,” Fetterman said. “Mocking a person’s self-identity is deeply harmful and should have no place in a civil society.”

Portogallo maintained claim his comments were jokes and didn’t especially care who took issue with it. The Pittsburgh Current attempted to reach out to Portogallo via his Facebook page late Sunday night. He repeatedly told those who took issue with his posts  to “chill out.”

(Photo via The Pittsburgh Current)

Portogallo also didn’t seem to care about the effect his posts could have on his business, despite advice from a fellow small business owner.

(Photo via The Pittsburgh Current)

Facebook user Ephie Flowers wrote: “Mess with Dr. Levine, mess with me! If the owner thinks Covid has negatively affected his business, he’s gonna love knowing that he further drove it into the ground with hatred and ignorance.”

Portogallo remained defiant, writing on his Facebook page, “Nine of 10 people laugh at my post and one is pissed off. That’s good odds. I can’t please everyone. I ain’t gonna change.”

Charlie Deitch is the editor of the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.