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La Cucina Denied Liquor License

Township Committee says owner not qualified because of past criminal convictions.

After more than three hours of testimony, arguments and deliberations at the Millburn Township Committee,  the committee denied the owners of La Cucina di Clemenza their request for a liquor license on Tuesday.

Township Committee members sided with Millburn Police department’s assessment that the owner’s husband is part of the business interest and not eligible for a liquor license because of his prior criminal convictions.

Donna Zecca had hoped to purchase the Chanticler’s liquor license for $500,000 and transfer it to her new La Cucina di Clemenza restaurant on Millburn Avenue, but that deal was contingent upon approval by the committee.

She and her husband Joe Zecca tried to show the committee that she was the sole owner and that Mr. Zecca had no interest in the business – either financially or personally, other than he wanted his wife and two daughters to learn how to run a business and he had helped them with the construction of the restaurant.

But the Millburn Police Department and its attorney, Rubin Sinins said Mrs. Zecca, a hairstylist in Livingston, was a “front” for her husband and his sister, who manages the restaurant - that he had to be an owner and he is not qualified.

“I don’t mean that in a pejorative way,” Sinins said. “But just to say that he is a partner in this business and he’s not qualified [for a liquor license].”

Mr. Zecca was convicted of cocaine possession in 1988 and of criminal restraint in 2007, after he was convicted of criminal restraint for holding three Honduran laborers in a basement where they were beaten by what prosecutors described as "hired thugs" because he believed they stole $80,000 from his mother's house. He was sentenced to 300 days in the Morris County Jail, and served his time, during he transferred much of his assets to his wife.

The Zeccas acquired the restaurant, which used to be on Essex Street, after loaning the previous owner $30,000 that he could not pay back.

The Zecca family has been running the restuarant since last year, they said, and wanted the license to improve service for their customers, of which, they said they've developed a following. The new restaurant boasts beautiful murals of the Italian countryside, they said.

When entering into a lease agreement for the Millburn Avenue building, Zecca signed the lease as the owner, according to documents filed with the township, but he said, that was because his wife wasn't there.

Millburn Detective Keith Laverty testified that when he interviewed the Zeccas, Mr. Zecca said his wife was “in the dark” about the business, but Mr. Zecca disputed that Tuesday night saying, “I never said she was ‘in the dark.’ I might have said she was a little ditzy but I would never say she was in the dark.”

Mrs. Zecca has been letting her sister-in-law run the restaurant, she said because “she’s really good at it” and Mrs. Zecca was planning to retire from the salon to oversee the restaurant. Currently, her grown daughters work with their aunt and help manage and host.

“It’s a family business,” she said. “My husband likes to build houses; that’s what he does. He never wanted to be involved in the restaurant. I have five children. He was sick last year and I needed some security. It’s a beautiful, honest restaurant. There’s nothing shady about it."

frustrated resident December 22, 2011 at 11:14 PM
there is no disputing this man's convictions. I think it is perfectly appropriate for someone to decline to support his business in light of these convictions. Of course your past actions have consequences.
Marty Wilson December 22, 2011 at 11:17 PM
he did the crime, he did the time, he makes good veal parm, let it rest. other restaurant owners in town have spent time in jail and they have been forgiven... in the holiday season, forgive and make sure not to borrow money from the owner...but enjoy his restaurant.
Carolyn December 22, 2011 at 11:28 PM
I guess no one is grasping the concept that he is not the owner, his wife and two daughters are and he did not want the license. Have a wonderful holiday!
John Fonseca December 23, 2011 at 03:28 AM
This article was quite a read. Seemed like Ms. Griffin was very careful to just lay out facts and quoted statements and opinions of those involved with this and the 2007 criminal case. I am disappointed, though. This brings the number of Italian restaurants in Millburn/SH down to six (at least the ones I know about and might go to). Thankfully the ones in Summit, Springfield, and Chatham will be able to compensate. There's no point to living in NJ unless you can go to a different Italian joint every night of the week for two weeks without repeating one. Belmont Tavern FTW!
Nick gerrz January 10, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Frustrated resident really?? Like you never had a bag of blow in your purse in your day.. Yea he might of liked to party back in his day and to tell you the truth the only thing mr zecca did wrong in my eyes is letting those honduranians out from his mothers basement. Don't act like this is the first time your hearing of a shady owner purchasing a business in new jersey, this isn't long island

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