Little Italy protests change

Neighbors outraged over dance party held by the new owner of Velleggia's

September 28, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN REPORTER

In Baltimore's Little Italy, a community famous for its neighbor-vs.-neighbor battles, there's a new reason to battle per la morte.

Residents are shaking their fists and crying basta following a newcomer's decision to host rowdy hip-hop parties at Velleggia's Italian Restaurant, a well-known trattoria that until recently had been run by a local family with Old World names such as Nazzareno and Enrico.

The newcomer is Terry Coffman Jr., a 34-year-old real estate investor who agreed to purchase the restaurant for $1.8 million last year. Coffman has yet to seal the deal - he must pay $1.4 million by tomorrow, according to liquor board files - but that hasn't stopped him from moving forward with exterior renovations and new entertainment ventures.

On Friday, Coffman held a dance party that drew a large crowd to Little Italy, according to residents who called police and the liquor board when revelers allegedly urinated in the street, tore down hanging plants and knocked over flower pots. Some residents said they cowered in their homes as men played craps on their front steps and women screamed and brawled in the alley.

"We were prisoners in our own homes," said Mary Ann Campanella, president of the Little Italy Community Organization. "These people were terrorizing our community."

Campanella and other residents say they will take up the issue at a hearing before the city liquor board today. They worry that Coffman will host other late-night parties - fliers have been distributed promising "upscale" parties every Saturday night - and that tourists hungry for buttery gnocchi and creamy cannoli will be driven off.

Coffman is set to appear before the liquor board, a state agency that oversees roughly 1,300 liquor licenses in the city, on a separate matter - he has yet to officially transfer the liquor license from the Velleggia name to his own name - but his hearing could be a lot more cantankerous given community outrage over the after-hours party.

"The crowd was very noisy and they were cursing at each other," said Guido DeFranco, owner of Caesar's Den restaurant. "I didn't know what was happening. I have been here for 30 years, and I have never seen anything like this. I didn't feel safe."

Liquor board Chairman Mark S. Fosler said he visited Velleggia's twice Friday after his office received e-mails and telephone calls from Little Italy residents, and that it was clear to him that Coffman was throwing a dancing and drinking party, a possible violation of his liquor license which requires that at least 51 percent of sales be for food.

"It looked to me like it was a restaurant attempting to act like a nightclub," Fosler said.

Coffman did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The young restaurateur might have other problems as well. A spokesman for the city's zoning office said that Coffman doesn't have a permit for live entertainment, which is needed to host a DJ dance party, nor permission to have outdoor seating. Coff- man has added several tables to a sidewalk outside his restaurant recently, according to neighbors.

Frank Velleggia, a former owner with other family members of the popular Little Italy restaurant, said he was upset to hear about the after-hours party and the neighborhood disturbances it caused.

"We have been there for over 60 years, and I don't like to hear of anything that besmirches my family's good name," he said.

Little Italy residents - who have argued about things as mundane as lighting for bocce ball courts - say that when Coffman was introduced as the new owner of Velleggia's at a community meeting Sept. 19, he told the group that he would not be holding hip-hop parties. Three days later, he held the event.

They say they were also told that the event was a political fundraiser for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor. Coffman's father, Terry Coffman Sr., who was at the restaurant the night of the event, made similar statements to liquor board officials, according to Fosler and a report filed by a liquor inspector who visited Velleggia's on Friday.

But an O'Malley campaign spokesman told The Sun yesterday that the event was not endorsed by the campaign. "We know the guy has a lot of signs up ... but this was not a campaign event," said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Little Italy residents have promised to keep up the fight.

"To me, that was a riot waiting to happen," said Campanella. "Our residents don't deserve this."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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