DOWNTOWN — When Giuseppe “Joe” Vitale opened Joe’s Pizza of Bleecker Street in Santa Monica, he claimed that he was bringing the venerable New York City pizzeria by the same name to the West Coast.
He told the Daily Press in 2007 that he co-founded the now famous Greenwich Village eatery with his then father-in-law Pino “Joe” Pozzuoli, the duo serving their famous thin crust pizza off the corner of Bleecker and Carmine streets since 1975.
The problem is, a lawsuit filed late last year by Pozzuoli claims that the Santa Monica pizza joint has no affiliation with the one back east. The suit also asserts that Vitale is perpetrating what amounts to a sham on the public and wants him to stop all uses of the logo, name and other trappings of the original restaurant, Pozzuoli’s lawyer Maria Savio said.
“This is the best suit I’ve ever litigated,” said Savio, who works with Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman, an intellectual property law firm in New York. “Hands down, this is the strongest case I’ve ever had.”
Pozzuoli was granted an injunction against Vitale earlier this year in a ruling that stopped him from using the name, references to Bleecker Street, the logo and any claim that the two eateries are the same company. They say that it amounts to false advertising, robbing the New York location of a reputation that took years to build.
Vitale’s lawyer, Santa Monica-based William Hochberg, feeling the injunction went a bit too far, was able to win an order in May that allowed the Santa Monica location, and sister restaurants in West Hollywood and Hollywood, to continue to use the name, but the judge maintained that the Bleecker Street reference should be dropped as well as any picture or advertisement that purports that Vitale is connected to the New York location. Vitale has complied, removing pictures of the New York location from the walls of his Broadway storefront. He also removed part of the building’s awning that included the Bleecker Street reference.
“It’s what I describe as a family squabble and a trade dispute wrapped up in a big ball of pizza dough,” Hochberg said. “Blood is thicker than water and mozzarella is thicker than both.”
Hochberg acknowledges that Vitale isn’t a partner or co-founder of the New York Joe’s, but said that Joe’s Pizza is a common name, which the judge ruled during the most recent court hearing. He added that the New York Joe’s closed its Bleecker Street location years ago, abandoning the reference. He said that opened the door for Vitale to assume the name and set up shop on the West Coast.
Vitale does have a solid link to the original Joe’s. He worked there for over 20 years, but Savio said that he wasn’t even a manager, let alone part owner.
Savio believes that Vitale seized on the name to further his business interests once parting ways with his ex-father-in-law.
“They claim I’m using their name,” Vitale said. “But, my name is Joe.”
He said that it’s just a coincidence that the two share a name.
“This thing has been blown out of proportion.”
While Vitale can carry on his business under the Joe’s Pizza name, there is still litigation to be done.
Savio continues to press the fact that the logo and tie to the original eatery are essential parts of the case that need remedy. In court filings, she claims that NYC Joe’s has been damaged to the tune of $10 million, a figure she said was based on speculation. She isn’t sure what the judge will rule in September, or which part of the original complaint will make it to a jury trial.
“There is very little battleground left,” Hochberg said. “It seems we’ll only have a small trial just about the sign.”
Hochberg and Vitale have filed a counterclaim saying that the plaintiff has actually infringed on their trademark and violated state and federal unfair competition laws.