Some surprise guests showed up to a swanky wedding ceremony this past May at the International Toy Center on Fifth Avenue—cops.
When police arrived, the old terrazzo floor was cluttered with carpets, flower arrangements, candelabras, lighting equipment and tables and chairs for more than 130 guests, all leading up to a canopy in the rotunda.
Exchanging vows in the marble-walled lobby of the nearly century-old Italian Renaissance-style building, with its bronze doors and brass trim, might seem elegant and romantic.
Landlord L&L Holding Company considers it trespassing.
But the bride and the groom (court documents don’t give their names) were merely the victims and not the perpetrators that prompted the property owner’s angry call to authorities.
That swagger belonged to the Cipriani family, which runs a big banquet hall of the same name on the Toy Center’s ground floor.
Giuseppe Cipriani, the svelte, smirking, Rolls Royce-riding, 41-year-old Italian impresario who heads the family’s U.S. operations, has tangled for the past three years with L&L—and the Toy Center’s previous two landlords—over his outfit’s routine occupation of the lobby.
Late Friday afternoon, L&L decided it had had enough and served Mr. Cipriani with a notice of termination, effective Aug. 8. First thing Monday morning, Mr. Cipriani fought back with a $20 million lawsuit to block the eviction. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30.
THE TOY CENTER SAGA, now four separate case files thick, is just one of many legal melees in which this scion of Venetian aristocracy, heir to the legendary Harry’s Bar legacy, has entangled himself.
The most recent was his July 31 appearance at Manhattan Supreme Court, alongside his elderly father, Arrigo, for tax violations. True to form, Mr. Cipriani smiled for the cameras after copping a lenient plea with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Mr. Cipriani et père were back on the streets, and back to running one of the city’s most revered restaurant empires, in no time.
Mr. Cipriani’s company, Cipriani USA, operates several high-end restaurants and banquet halls across Manhattan; it currently pays about $36,000 per month for the 22,000-square-foot private-events space inside the Toy Center. The company has insisted that it has every right to expand operations into the lobby on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays. And it contends the lobby usage was never an issue until its first landlord decided to put the building up for sale.
L&L, which bought the building for nearly $500 million this past April, disputes that assertion, pointing to prior “contentious proceedings” between Mr. Cipriani and both previous owners.
The latest landlord has accused the banquet behemoth of brazenly breaking not only its lease but also city code by continuing to clutter the lobby with tables, chairs, and other free-standing structures, and also blocking off entrances during events—“despite having no permits to do so,” according to court papers.
Mr. Cipriani has blamed the permit problems on L&L, which, he argues, has refused to sign the necessary paperwork. But according to the Buildings Department, the reason for disapproval stems from “concerns about egress”—not signatures.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cipriani and company have accused L&L of waging a nasty campaign to “unreasonably, maliciously and intentionally interfere” with the catering business and to destroy the culinary outfit’s reputation as a “first-class provider of hospitality services.”
The alleged smear campaign not only has included repeated calls to the cops and to regulators, but also shoddy renovation work in the lobby that has purportedly appalled and even chased away potential customers.
On June 22, building management opened a two-foot hole in the dome of the rotunda and poked nine smaller holes in the ceiling, as part of a purported asbestos-removal program. The holes in the ceiling were covered up with panels that don’t match, and the dome was covered with an “unsightly” white plastic sheet, court papers show.
“The sponsors of the wedding last Friday were very upset at the condition of the lobby, particularly the condition of the dome,” complained Cipriani attorney Steven Wagner in a July 5 letter to L&L lawyer Jodi Kleinick.
It’s the same don’t-upset-the-happy-couple defense that Team Cipriani has employed since the lobby debacle first started three landlords ago. “It would be disastrous,” pleaded Mr. Cipriani’s former catering director, Wendy Gordon, in a 2006 affidavit, “to tell the bride and groom four days before their wedding ceremony that they can’t have their ceremony in the lobby of the building.”
And it’s not the first time that Mr. Cipriani has put his high standards of hospitality ahead of supposed safety measures. In 2003, he sued Rockefeller Center to prevent the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the renowned Rainbow Room, which Cipriani USA also operates, citing party planners’ concerns about long lines to get through security.
According to L&L’s lawyers, the prior court record only strengthens their contention that Mr. Cipriani brazenly flouts the law.
“[I]f the City says you’re using the premises in the lobby unlawfully, what will your client do?” a judge asked Mr. Cipriani’s attorney, Mr. Wagner, according to a transcript of a January 2007 hearing.
“They’ll stop,” Mr. Wagner said—a promise that L&L claims Mr. Cipriani has not kept. (Although the city has declined to approve a permanent assembly permit for the Toy Center lobby, it has issued a temporary permit through the end of August.)
YET EVEN BREAKING THE LAW sometimes isn’t enough to stop a culinary juggernaut like Mr. Cipriani.
Consider last week’s guilty plea to a single charge of defrauding the city and state to the tune of $10 million in unpaid taxes, allegedly concealed through bogus licensing fees due to the company’s international parent, Cipriani SA, and sheltered in a secretive Luxembourg bank
In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to charge Mr. Cipriani with the far more serious crime of insurance fraud, allegedly “committed acting in concert” with former Cipriani vice president, Dennis Pappas, a reputed ex-mob associate who once managed several Cipriani locations and is now in prison.
Prosecutors came down far harder last December on the proprietors of the Park Avenue Country Club sports bar, two of whom pleaded guilty to five felonies after defrauding the city and state of the comparatively meager sum of $1.8 million.
The Park Avenue Country Club closed months ago, but Cipriani USA should easily withstand the financial hit. According to Fortune, the company raked in roughly $140 million in 2006 alone, with plans under way on a reported $300 million hotel renovation in South Beach and another $70 million hotel revamp near Beverly Hills.
Mr. Cipriani’s endurance in the highly competitive Manhattan restaurant racket may have come as a surprise, given the level of opposition over the years. He survived a legal dust-up with ever-litigious building titan Donald Trump, who, Mr. Cipriani claimed in 2005, conspired with union leaders to nix a proposed Cipriani restaurant inside Mr. Trump’s swank Park Avenue condo tower.
He survived Eliot Spitzer, who, as attorney general, accused Cipriani of gender discrimination for not hiring enough female waiters.
He even survived the seemingly never-ending picket lines of Local 6, the hotel and restaurant employees union he sued during his 1999 attempt to bar its members from working at the Rainbow Room.
At the time, some industry experts believed the labor dispute might be Mr. Cipriani’s undoing.
“I think these guys have made mistakes every step of the way,” Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat restaurant surveys, then told The New York Times. “With a track record like that, you wouldn’t want to bet on them for the future. And having two competing catering halls of this kind is not a harbinger of success.”
Mr. Cipriani now operates a total of five catering halls in Manhattan—and, for now, one big lobby.