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."