When Damiano Mr. Pizza, the family-run pizza parlor on Fairfax Avenue, shut its doors late last month after nearly 60 years in business, it quickly brought to light the tiff between building owners Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, who together own well-regarded restaurants Animal and Son of a Gun, and Damiano's owner, Mitchell Kitay.
Kitay -- who took over the business that his father, Dominick Albanese, started in 1964 -- had been working at Damiano's since he was 14 years old. Over the years, the restaurant became a neighborhood staple and a popular spot for late-night slices after shows at the nearby Kibbitz Room.
Now, Kitay is claiming he was forced out when Dotolo and Shook took over the space. And what Kitay said he believed was a neighborhood institution, Shook called a pizza joint "that's lived its life, had its heyday and run its course."
"About two years ago, I got a letter saying 'thanks for being a good tenant, send your new rent check to this management company,' and I thought 'well, that's not good,'" Kitay said, adding that he called the management company after he received the letter and was told his rent would be raised from $3,500 to $12,000 a month.
Dotolo said he and Shook were able to purchase the building because of a difficult relationship between the previous building owner and Kitay. Kitay tried to buy the building back himself, but Dotolo and Shook didn't budge.
"We saw it as he's going to keep disrespecting the building," said Dotolo. "We wanted to improve the real estate itself. It's been used for over 50 years without any improvements to it.
"We have a lot of ideas, we have a lot of concepts and a lot of great people working for us, and we want to provide opportunities for them there as well," he said. "It's really ironic how [some in the L.A. food scene] consider themselves sophisticated, and people who know the world of food, but they tolerate this really mediocre pizza in a really dirty facility. I get the nostalgia factor when you were a kid in the '80s, but it's not the same."
In a letter on the blog Tweek City, Eric G. Johnson expressed a sense of loss for Damiano's, calling sitting in the window eating a slice at 2 a.m. "one of the purest pleasures L.A. had to offer." He went on to call it "a place to be treasured."
Kitay said that when the lease came up in September, he was asked by the management company if he would like to renew for an additional three months. He renewed three times, for three months each time. In those nine months, Dotolo and Shook were in the process of opening Trois Mec with Ludo Lefebvre.
Then in May, Kitay said, he was given a one-month notice to move out.
"I understand putting in a new concept, but they can do that anywhere instead of putting it where a business has been here for over 50 years," he said.
Dotolo was adamant that he and his partner made their intentions clear from the start, telling Kitay that they were going to take the space when the original lease was up, and that he should hunt for another space.
"The place was filthy," Dotolo said. "When is the last time you were in there spending 20 dollars? They weren't that busy."
Kitay said he had an "ideal" relationship with the previous owners and also points to his restaurant's "A" city rating as evidence of its cleanliness.
"Those guys shouldn't be bad-mouthing the restaurant," Kitay said. "Does he sit there all night long to see how many people are in there?"
Dotolo insisted that taking over the restaurant wasn't anything more than a straight business deal.
Meanwhile, Kitay said he has been looking for other possible locations, but has no immediate plans to open another pizza joint.