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Friday, May 18, 2012

Landmark Forest Hills pizza shop shuttered -- UPDATED

Posted By on Fri, May 18, 2012 at 1:02 PM

Word has reached our ears that Vincent's Pizza Park -- beloved Forest Hills home of the "Vinnie Pie" -- has been shuttered, following a business dispute that ended up in federal court.

Two other pizza locations bearing the Vincent name, in Penn Hills and Irwin, are still open: Both are separate franchises unaffected by the legal drama. Attorneys for the warring parties are either not available or have not returned calls for comment. [UPDATE: See below]. But in the meantime, here's the story behind the dispute, according to court records:

Vincent's, and the Vinnie Pie itself, is named for Vincent Chianese. But according to court papers, the Ardmore Boulevard restaurant that bears his name has been operated by B&C Pizza, a separate corporation formed in 2003 by John Bellissimo, with equal interests shared by himself, Chianese and Joseph Cava. B&C was licensed to operate the restaurant by Vincent's Pizza Park Inc., a separate business, also owned by Chianese. Court records show a business relationship that can be hard to untangle, and that eventually went sour.

Chianese died just over two years ago. After his death, Chianese's interest in B&C was transferred to his estate, and his daughter, Toni Zollner, acquired Vincent's Pizza Park Inc. Last year, that entity accused the partnership and its other two principals of failing to make royalty payments starting in April 2010, shortly after Chianese died. Zollner decided to dissolve the licensing agreement that allowed B&C to operate the restaurant. Cava and Bellissimo later said the royalty money was being placed in an escrow fund, pending resolution of a long-running business dispute. In fact, they had sued Chianese in 2009, claiming that he had a violated an oral agreement to sell ingredients at a small mark-up from what Chianese paid to his own vendors. They accused him of overcharging them for ingredients between 2003 and 2006 ... to the tune of more than $200,000. (Chianese, in turn, denied both making the oral promises attributed to him and taking advantage of his partners. He filed a counterclaim accusing the partners of acting "willfully and maliciously" by switching to different vendors.)

But Zollner took her allegations to federal court late last year, suing Cava, Bellissimo, and B&C Pizza itself. In a March 9 court order, federal judge Gary Lancaster ruled the defendants would have to pay more than $42,000. What's more, he barred Cava and Bellissimo from operating the Forest Hills restaurant -- and from "imitating, copying or making any other infringing use or infringing distribution of any pizza [or] pizza product." Lancaster also prohibited them from using Vincent's methods of production" as well as any "trade secrets, confidential information ... standards [and] specifications."

Lancaster's was a default order -- one made in the absence of a response from the defendants. But two weeks after it was entered, Cava and Bellissimo sought to belay the order. Among other things, Bellissimo claimed never to have received the original complaint or the a related court summons, copies of which were left at the Pizza Park and another restaurant he's invested in. "Overall, this default judgment has come as a complete surprise to the Defendants," they wrote in a motion to stay Lancaster's ruling.

Lancaster rejected B&C's appeal early this month, ruling that "any allegations that defendants had no idea a lawsuit had been filed against them ... are incredulous." Lancaster rejected other arguments as well, and ruled that the defendants had "submitted nothing to indicate that any allegedly disputed amounts had actually been escrowed."

In the meantime, Toni Zollner, who also owns the Ardmore Boulevard property the restaurant sits on, had filed another court action at the county level, arguing that B&C was in violation of its lease, and owed her more than $10,000 in back rent and other costs. The sheriff's department posted a writ of execution on the property yesterday, and the pizza shop is now closed.

Which means that if you find yourself craving a Vinnie Pie, you'll apparently have to find it somewhere else. At least for now.

ADDED (5:35 p.m.) I just got off the phone with Frank Rapp, the plaintiff's lawyer in the federal court action. For now, he says, the Forest Hills location "is closed. We changed the locks. It's just going to sit there for the next little while until we get this sorted out."

Rapp says Bellissimo and Cava could appeal Lancaster's ruling, or seek to reopen the case at the county level, perhaps as soon as Monday. On the other hand, he says, "There's also some talk about working this out."

"I don't know what's going to happen," Rapp says. "They might decide to fight, but they might also decide they don't want to do this any more." If that happens, Toni Zollner "may license somebody else" to run the Pizza Park, much as the other locations bearing the Vincent name are licensed.

"I've been surprised by how much interest this has generated," he added.

Editor's note: While adding Rapp's remarks to this post, I also clarified -- or tried to, anyway -- Zollner's role in the entities that were parties in this suit.

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