When Custino's Italian Kitchen reopened in May after a 14-year absence, it was greeted with long lines and buzz among foodies as to whether the lasagnas and Italian beef sandwiches they remembered might truly be back.
But just a few weeks later, the enterprise between Phillip Custino, his son Angelo and Bud Elder that led to the restaurant's revival is mired in litigation and conflicting allegations of embezzlement, sabotage and death threats. And while the Custinos did not grant interview requests to The Oklahoman, court records show a trail of legal actions and debts accumulated over 20 years.
It's a tale that appears to have begun in 1990 when Custino began selling trays of lasagna at the old AMC Flea Market that stood at NW 10 and Pennsylvania Avenue. Two years later he was providing food alongside trendy restaurants at charity events held at Remington Park. By 1993, Custino was selling his lasagna and sandwiches at four metro-area restaurants.
Bud Elder, who is now in a court battle with Custino, fondly remembers those early days when the pair were good friends.
“We lived close by,” Elder said. “He was very friendly, a very gregarious character, and I'm drawn to that. We stayed close, I did his commercials, and then he up and left. I had no idea why.”
Elder said Custino did share with him a history not told publicly (but mentioned in a recent police report filed by Elder) — that Custino was in the federal witness protection program following some legal entanglements in Chicago in the late 1980s.
What Elder claims he didn't know was that Custino closed his restaurants as he faced a series of lawsuits filed by creditors and vendors. Those lawsuits also were not reported by local media, though he did make headlines in 1998 with a deal with Hormel Foods to sell prepackaged frozen lasagnas under Custino's name.
The Hormel deal
In a 1998 interview with The Oklahoman, Custino said sales of his ziti lasagna would reach $20 million annually with a national distribution deal that called for Hormel to produce the meals at its southwest Oklahoma City plant.
Custino, then 51, saw the deal as a game changer that could create hundreds of jobs.
The deal didn't last long. In 2001, Hormel Foods filed a lawsuit in 2001 in Minnesota against Custino's company, Custino's Supreme Quality Foods, and won a $134,898 judgment against the restaurateur.
Court records, meanwhile, indicate Custino entered into another financial arrangement with local insurance executive Dan Ryan about the same time the Hormel deal was being executed.
Ryan did not return calls to The Oklahoman, but in 2008 Oklahoma County District Judge Bryan C. Dixon awarded an $85,000 judgment for Ryan against Custino after he failed to respond to summons by the court.
A surprise visit
Throughout the years, Elder wondered whatever had happened to his old friend. Elder said he was recovering from heart bypass surgery at Deaconess Hospital in October when Custino made a surprise visit.
“He said: ‘I am moving back to Oklahoma City,'” Elder recalled. “He was broke — he didn't have a dime.”
Elder said it was then that Custino first approached him about partnering with him in opening a restaurant. Discussions with friends led to introducing Custino to Danny Falcone, a native New Yorker whose own Italian restaurants had fallen on hard times. A quick expansion to five restaurants, including one in Bricktown, had collapsed and Falcone was struggling to maintain his original eatery at 6705 N May Ave.
The venture was presented to the public as the dream pairing of a popular pizza guy from New York with a popular lasagna guy from Chicago.
The dream, however, fell apart within a few short weeks. Falcone since has sold his restaurant to Michael Pugliese, president of Platt College.
Falcone said the arrangement called for Custino to buy the restaurant, but instead, Falcone claimed, Custino strung him along.
Elder remembers Custino lobbying him to back him in buying the restaurant, but it appeared to him a deal could not be struck with Falcone.
Talks then shifted to opening a restaurant in the former Kansas City Blues and Barbeque at 2724 W Britton. Custino's Italian Kitchen opened to long lines on May 16 and even ran out of several popular menu items.
Elder alleged the partnership was structured, at the request of Phil Custino, so that the partners were Custino's 21-year-old son Angelo, Bud Elder and his wife Barbara. Elder said he and his wife provided the capital, while Custino was to provide the recipes and expertise.
Elder's attorney, Bill Zuhdi, argues it was Elder's experience as a former director of the Oklahoma Film Commission and his work with the state tourism department that led to the restaurant's positive response.
“Bud is a master of promotion; he knows how to promote,” Zuhdi said. “That's why he was at the film commission. He understands products and knows how to put together a good product.”
What happened next depends on which court filing one believes. In a lawsuit filed Aug. 1 by Angelo Custino, the Elders are accused of embezzling money on two different occasions. When questioned about the conflict, Custino's attorney, Jarrod Morris, repeatedly declined to answer and instead referred to the lawsuit.
In that lawsuit, Custino alleges he was taking a “personal day” on June 26 when the Elders changed the locks and prohibited the Custinos from access to the business or its books. Custino also alleged the Elders threatened him with criminal action if he returned to the restaurant.
Custino also alleged that Elder sent him a threatening text message and filed a report with police alleging Custino had threatened to “whack” and “kill” the Elders — an allegation Custino denied.
Both sides agree the restaurant closed for one day on June 26. At the time, Elder told The Oklahoman's food critic that Phil Custino had left the business because he was is in poor health and could not handle the workload.
That brief report prompted a response by Angelo Custino suggesting a deeper conflict was responsible for the breakup.
“Insinuating my father is in poor health and could not handle the workload has damaged my father's reputation and has caused conflict with his current business dealings,” Angelo Custino wrote in an email to Food Editor Dave Cathey.
“As for the recipes, the only ones who know them are my father and I. Anything they are producing is an imitation product, which Mr. Elder is aware of … This all stemmed from Bud having a hard time with a 21-year-old owning 50 percent of a business to which he only owned 25 percent.”
Elder presents a different version of events, that starts with what he alleges was an effort by the Custinos to shut down the operation and seize control.
In response and counterclaim to the suit, Elder alleged the Custinos called employees and told them not to show up for work on June 26, and then sought to turn off the restaurant's utilities. He claimed the food permit was pulled from display and a health inspector was contacted about the lack of the permit.
Elder denies embezzling money from the restaurant, and argues that it was Angelo Custino who took $1,600 from the restaurant's account. Angelo Custino in his filing admits withdrawing the $1,600 but added it was an effort to stabilize the restaurant operation in response to damage he saw being done by the Elders.
As of last week, Custino's Italian Kitchen remained open for business under the control of the Elders.
On Thursday the restaurant's Facebook page was wiped clean of promotional messages posted by the Elders, and they claim someone had seized control of the website.
A hearing on an injunction sought by the Custinos is set for Tuesday. Elder provided a written statement after asking The Oklahoman not to report on the matter.
“While my family and I would have never chosen such a public forum to tell our story, we do so now in hopes that others be forewarned to investigate completely any person with whom they are to share finances,” Elder said. “While our dream of owning an Oklahoma small business has been rife with challenges, the good news is that because of an unbelievably dedicated staff and consultant, we're serving up a lot of great food and fellowship every day and our wonderfully devoted customer base, many of whom come in three or more times a week, seems to agree.”