Touch of Italy brings bitter flavor to Milford

MILFORD — Antique banking vaults and teller stalls defined the inside of the more than 100-year-old bank on the corner of NW Front and Walnut Streets in Milford last June when Robert Ciprietti and Joe Curzi, co-owners of downstate restaurant Touch of Italy, purchased the building from M&T Bank.

The public has not been back into the building since that announcement.

Although plans for the building included a restaurant and deli, permits filed with the city of Milford portray a different picture.

A demolition permit was filed by Manufacturers and Traders Trust, or M&T Bank, October 5, 2016 for the removal of carpeting, subfloor, plumbing and electric as necessary by Builder Bob Construction Solutions, Inc. The demolition permit expired September 30, 2017.

A two-year permit for exterior renovations dated April 10, 2017 filed by Mr. Curzi under his limited liability corporation Il Nostro Locale, LLC. also named Mr. Ciprietti’s corporation Builder Bob Construction Solutions, Inc. as the contractor.

Former Governor Jack Markell, center, discussed the impact of the Downtown Development District grant program from inside the more than 100-year-old bank in January last year. Up to $100,000 was requested between two different projects at the building; however, no money has been given to the owners as the necessary construction work has yet to be completed. From left to right: Delaware State Housing Authority Director Anas Ben Addi, Touch of Italy co-owner Bob Ciprietti, Gov. Jack Markell, Milford Mayor Bryan Shupe and Touch of Italy co-owner Joe Curzi. The Chronicle Archives/Jennifer Antonik

Exterior renovations of the building were to include entrances, awnings, roof repairs, lighting, landscaping, windows and façade improvements, valued at $137,400.

A permit fee of $695 for the exterior renovations was waived by the city of Milford. The fee for the demolition permit was also waived, although the document did not list a price.

Thanks to an economic development agreement signed in June 2016 prior to Milford’s Downtown Development District designation, additional waivers to be given to Touch of Italy would also include water, sewer and electric impact fees, and a three-year property tax abatement with the city, but only after the restaurant opened. To take advantage of these waivers, the restaurant had to open by June 28, 2017.

City of Milford councilmembers unanimously agreed to extend this agreement by six months during a regular meeting June 12, 2017, after learning the business was not yet ready to open. The six-month extension would not begin until the business was issued a building permit for construction of the restaurant.

This extension is still in force, because there are no other permits currently on file within the city of Milford for the building at 1 NW Front St., nor are there any permits on file with Kent County.

The Delaware State Housing Authority confirmed that the Milford-based project received two reservations under the Downtown Development District program: one for the “tenant company” and one for the building owner. Each reservation was approved for $50,000, but neither has been paid out to either party because the project has yet to be completed. Both reservations have now expired.

Phone calls to Mr. Ciprietti and Mr. Curzi have not yet been returned to The Milford Chronicle.

“They bought the building; they’re paying a mortgage. So, I know it’s in their best interest to open or rent out the space,” Milford Mayor Bryan Shupe said. “I think it’s a very attractive building for people. We’ll sit down with them in the new year and come up with a game place together. They’re going to have to make a decision and we’re more than happy to be a part of that conversation.”

Mayor Shupe said city officials will continue to work with the owners if possible to see that the building is used once again.

“Our job is kind of promoting Milford and showing properties that are available. First of all to businesses that are here, but also outside of Milford,” he said. “I’m more than happy to go out there again and try to attract someone for the building. We’re here to promote Milford and show off commercial properties.”

Ultimately, he explained, it’s up to the private business owners to decide whether they open their doors for business or not.

“For good reason, there’s a distinction between government and private sector. We don’t have control over the private sector. The only thing we have control over is if they’re breaking the law or violating any Milford codes,” he said.

According to town and property records, Touch of Italy has paid all local property taxes to date.

While questions continue to surface around the proposed Touch of Italy location in Milford, this is not Mr. Ciprietti’s first time undertaking historical renovations.

Wayne County, Indiana

On a quick tour of a now-vacant hospital building in Richmond, Ind., a visitor would see the handiwork of vandals, fires and deterioration. Asbestos litters the 74-acre campus that once held the promise of becoming an upscale development.

Reid Hospital occupied the facility for more than a century from 1904 until its move to a new location in September 2008. New owners acquired the property.

One of the purchasers of the Reid Hospital site is now among Milford’s newest developers: Touch of Italy co-owner Robert Ciprietti, who along with then-partner Ernesto Zamparini of New York, acquired the former Indiana hospital through their company, Rose City Development, in October 2009, according to newspaper articles from the Richmond, Ind. Palladium-Item.

The acquisition came after a short ownership by Whitewater Living Center, LLC. which purchased the facility in 2006 and was primarily comprised of members of a prominent family from Richmond, Ind., according to a news release found on Rhett Baumgartner Commercial Real Estate’s website. With high hopes of using the space as offices, residential spaces and a restaurant, Whitewater Living owned the site until 2008 and rented it to the hospital until the new hospital was ready for use.

Whitewater Living Center, LLC. then sold the building to Rose City Development, of which Mr. Ciprietti was a principal owner, according to the Palladium-Item. Rose City Development was renamed Spring Grove Development in 2009.

The Indiana Economic Digest stated plans for the facility at that point included “a chain hotel and retail shops, apartments, including for senior citizens and possibly even a water park,” as well as a student center, an addition allegedly made by Mr. Ciprietti himself.

To help ensure the success and financing for the project, the developer told the Richmond Common Council it needed to create a Tax Increment Financing district in 2010, according to a Palladium-Item newspaper article written by Mike Emery.

One such district was created, the article continued, “in hopes of selling $1.5 million in bonds that would be repaid with TIF revenue. The city would have sold the bonds, and Spring Grove would have been responsible for repaying them. No development occurred, no TIF money was generated and no money exchanged hands.”

Plans obviously fell short.

The building remains unused and now unsafe for local residents, some of whom have been hurt by exploring the old, run-down facility. Taxes and costs also remain an issue as the area considers how to clean up the once vibrant hospital.

In addition to the mess at the site, Spring Grove Development, LLC. owes the county at least $1,096,116.95 in unpaid taxes, fees, penalties and other charges, according to Wayne County records.

The Palladium-Item reported that the development company stopped paying taxes in 2011 on the property and its structures. As of 2014, it was no longer recognized by the state of Indiana as a registered company after ceasing to pay business fees, also.

As for physical damage at the site, there is “no direct liability to the defendants at this point in time,” Wayne County Attorney Ronald Cross told The Chronicle in 2017.

Local television station, WTHR, reported last year that the city of Richmond claims Spring Grove Development “stripped valuable copper and other resources out of the building and left town, damaging the roughly 600,000 square foot collection of buildings.”

Demolition and city ownership now seem to be the fate for the old Reid hospital.

The building and surrounding parcels currently owned by Spring Grove Development went up for county tax sale recently, but no one took the deal because of the high tax bill left with the property. The city of Richmond will become the new owners of the old Reid hospital in February 2018 due to foreclosure in lieu of real property taxes. Demolition will begin shortly afterward.

The city hopes to redevelop the property for multi-use residential and commercial needs, along with a city park.

Mr. Zamparini has not yet been found by Wayne County officials, but Mr. Cipretti was served notice of a civil suit against Spring Grove Development, LLC. by a process server in Delaware in October 2015 after a search for his whereabouts.

“What I’d like to see is Bob Ciprietti in handcuffs in our jail,” Wayne County Commissioner Denny Burns told the Palladium-Item. “It’s not the fault of the city or anybody. It’s the fault of a couple of shysters who people believed and they shouldn’t have.”

Going back in time

Mr. Ciprietti, along with his current business partner, Joseph Curzi III, purchased the100-year-old bank building in 2016 for their Touch of Italy restaurant which, at the time, only had locations downstate.

The eatery was planned for the former M&T Bank and historic First National Bank building on the corner of Walnut and Front Streets. Mr. Ciprietti said during a tour of the facility just days after announcing the sale that he and Mr. Curzi were excited about the possibilities of renovating the building to fit their needs after negotiating with Milford Mayor Bryan Shupe for more than two years.

Mayor Shupe said during a legislative luncheon held by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Milford last year that the newly earned Downtown Development District designation was one of the catalysts for bringing Touch of Italy to town as the owners might be able to take advantage of significant grant opportunities offered through the program.

Before partnering with Mr. Ciprietti, Mr. Curzi spent most of his career in insurance through his own business Curzi Insurance based out of Easton, Pa. After 23 years, the business was acquired by Florida-based Brown & Brown, Inc.; Mr. Curzi remained as the senior vice president for several more years until 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile.

He is now a co-owner of Touch of Italy, which opened in the fall of 2010 with its first location in Lewes. Touch of Italy currently has several locations in Delaware and Maryland — not including the property purchased in Milford.

The Bronx, N.Y.

Mr. Ciprietti is from the Bronx, N.Y. where he was raised and graduated from St. Raymond’s High School for Boys in 1979. He was even inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame, along with 61 other former students in the summer of 2009, according to the school’s website.

Mr. Ciprietti went into business with Mario Tolisano Dec. 6, 1985, under the business name Ciprietti-Tolisano Associates Inc. Mr. Tolisano already had another construction business by the name of Mario Tolisano Associates Inc., which began in 1982 and dissolved by proclamation Sept. 23, 1992 according to state records.

After not quite a decade in business, Ciprietti-Tolisano Associates Inc. ran afoul of state tax laws.

According to Alan Finder of the New York Times back on April 30, 1996, “Ciprietti-Tolisano, was dissolved by the New York Secretary of State in September 1994 for failing to pay state taxes, and thus cannot legally do business in New York State.”

Despite this fact, Volmar Construction brought Ciprietti-Tolisano Associates Inc. on as subcontractors in a $31 million New York City contract to complete a “substantial amount of work” to about 60 fire department buildings in Queens, N.Y. Volmar Construction had a storied past with underpaying its workers and not paying for projects based on prevailing wages, according to the New York Times’ article.

As a subcontractor to the project, Ciprietti-Tolisano Associates Inc. was required to complete a city contractor questionnaire in which the company failed to disclose its failure to pay state taxes and ultimate dissolution of the company by the state. Other red flags began popping up, too.

According to Mr. Finder in a later article, “The company also did not disclose, as required, two tax liens from the Internal Revenue Service — one for $30,106 in unpaid Federal payroll taxes and the other for $12,691 in unpaid Federal unemployment insurance taxes.”

The article goes on to say the company’s corporate status was restored by the state of New York on May 10, 1996 as the back due state franchise taxes had been paid just days after the initial article was published by the Times in April.

By 1996, Ciprietti-Tolisano Associates, Inc. had already completed work for the city for several years under four city-given contracts.

The company eventually changed its name to Ciprietti-Tolisano Builders, Inc. in 2001 and officially dissolved by proclamation, according to a New York State Entity Status, Oct. 28, 2009.

According to New York state records, Mr. Tolisano was indicted Aug. 26, 2009 with Celestino Orta on grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property charges after “bilking three people out of more than $1.3 million in an alleged scam involving the sale of property that the defendants did not own and were not authorized to sell.”

Mr. Tolisano also was arrested by Nassau County Police in New York on June 23, 2015 and pled guilty to third-degree grand larceny after pretending to be a licensed attorney and contracting with two residents to help them get loan modifications which were never completed, according to the Garden City Patch.

According to the Collection Division Public Improvement Lien Docket in New York, Ciprietti-Tolisano Associates currently has a lien against it of $394,251.12.

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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