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Ex-cop could take down elite New York food dynasty

In a city obsessed with fine dining, one name has always stood out among New York restaurants: Cipriani.

The Italian dining dynasty has run a food empire in Manhattan for almost three decades. Its eateries attract A-list stars and the Big Apple’s social elite; all eager to see and be seen just as much as to sample the cuisine.

But now the Cipriani family has been hit by a series of legal disasters and, in just a few weeks, could lose their liquor licence. That would leave the dynasty that gave the world the Bellini cocktail unable to serve booze: a kiss of death in New York’s cut-throat dining scene.

It would certainly leave a huge hole in the social life of many celebrities and Manhattan’s elite. Cipriani Downtown is a regular haunt of Hollywood names including Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Leonardo DiCaprio. The family’s Fifth Avenue restaurant, called Harry Cipriani, is a home-from-home for Manhattan’s socialites.

Meanwhile, there are also banqueting halls, such as the Rainbow Room, which recently hosted the wedding of former French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy. ”Going to Cipriani is restaurant as theatre. It represents privilege when food becomes part of your identity, like buying a luxury car,” said Danyelle Freeman, restaurant critic of the New York Daily News.

But things are no longer plain sailing for the Ciprianis. The problems began in 2007 when father-and-son team Arrigo and Giuseppe Cipriani were charged with tax evasion in New York. An anonymous letter had been sent to the authorities and triggered an investigation that discovered millions of dollars of unpaid taxes. Both Ciprianis ended up pleading guilty — Arrigo to a felony charge and Giuseppe to a misdemeanour — and getting probation.

That could have been the end of the matter, but New York law does not allow convicted felons to have liquor licences. Initially the family got around the problem by removing Arrigo’s name from the licences. However, then they ran into an unexpected problem: a gruff, straight-talking former cop.

Daniel Boyle, a former chief of police in the New York city of Syracuse, is also the chairperson of the State Liquor Authority. With a reputation as a no-nonsense, by-the-rules official, Boyle did not tolerate the Ciprianis’ attempt to bend the rules. In May he moved to revoke all the Ciprianis’ liquor licences, claiming they had deliberately hidden Arrigo’s name. The Ciprianis then offered to pay a $500 000 settlement. Boyle rejected the idea and even suggested slapping them with a further fine.

Now a Liquor Authority hearing on August 18 could come up with a judgement on the issue and revoke the licences: the fate of the Cipriani restaurants could hang on which way the board decides. ”There goes the famed Cipriani Bellini. That would be a devastating blow,” Freeman said.

It is not, however, the first time the family has faced troubles. The Ciprianis’ history in the business of dining and drinking is an epic story that stretches across the world and back to 1931 when former barman Giuseppe Cipriani opened Harry’s Bar in Venice. That was where the Bellini was invented and the swanky dive soon became a hangout for stars such as Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Maria Callas.

The Ciprianis crossed the Atlantic in 1980, making a huge splash. The empire expanded all over Manhattan, becoming a byword for impeccable service and celebrity sightings. ”They had this romantic European style of endless numbers of gorgeous women in too-short skirts and men with their shirts unbuttoned perhaps a bit too far,” said Andrea Strong, of New York food blog The Strong Buzz.

The Cipriani empire spread and now has outposts all over the globe, including London and Hong Kong. There are hotels, apartment buildings and, of course, still the original Harry’s Bar back in Venice. But if it loses its New York restaurants, the family will undoubtedly suffer a big blow.

The subject is rapidly becoming the hot topic in New York’s gossip and foodie circles. ”Has Cipriani’s fizz gone flat?” asked the Page Six gossip magazine, of the New York Post, last week, which then exhaustively detailed the family’s woes. ”Dynasties end, empires crumble and this may finally be last call for the Ciprianis,” it concluded.

But, perhaps adding insult to injury, there has also been a sudden questioning of the restaurants’ standards. Last year, New York Times critic Frank Bruni harshly criticised the service at Harry Cipriani. ”That review by Bruni was one of the greatest things he has written,” said Strong.

And others have started to refer to the Cipriani restaurants as being all about fame and not much about food. Michael Musto, a columnist for the Village Voice, recalled once dining at Cipriani Downtown and being less than impressed.

”It had a nice, continental ambience … but I remember thinking the portions weren’t huge and the service was a little off,” he said. —

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