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.