DUNEDIN — Great Italian food, fine wine, warm hospitality. That's what patrons of Bellini Restaurant came to expect until the restaurant abruptly closed two weeks ago.
David Roy, who owns Meranova Guest Inn across the way, said people in the community are sick with disappointment about the closure of the restaurant at 487 Main St.
"We're brokenhearted because it was one of the classiest businesses at this end of the street, and it attracted a lot of great people," said Roy, who often recommended the restaurant to his guests.
But owner Clarita Mancini said she had little choice because of a rift with her partner, Michael Howland.
She said Howland wanted to close, and her landlord, who was affiliated with him, wouldn't renew her lease.
"We tried to buy him out. We tried a lot of things, but nothing worked," said Mancini, 54, who filed suit against Howland in August 2009 to keep the restaurant open. The suit also seeks more than $15,000 in damages.
Howland said he "never wanted to close" and he framed the situation as a dispute between Mancini and her landlord.
"There was a problem between them and the landlord. I've been a silent partner for the last four years," said Howland, 52. "Whatever happened between them and the landlord, I don't know anything about it."
Despite Howland's efforts to distance himself from the landlord, the suit says he has been "intimately involved with the landlord," Ewart Holdings, since 2000.
State records show Howland was a manager for Ewart until March 2009. He said he now works for Ewart's director in another capacity.
Mancini's lawsuit also says Howland threatened to close the restaurant in August 2009 "as a guise to reopen the restaurant under his own name." The case cites a corporate fictitious name filing by Howland in July 2009 for Bellini Restaurant & Lounge, listing only himself as owner.
Mancini said she bought a 50 percent interest in Bellini in June 2004, and she entered a five-year commercial lease that same month. Howland signed the lease as landlord in May 2004, according to a copy of the lease in court records.
In February 2009, about three months before the lease was supposed to expire, Mancini sent notification to the landlord that her restaurant was renewing its lease, her suit says. In August, she got a notice from the landlord that she did not give proper notice and the landlord was terminating her lease.
That same month, according to her suit, Howland informed her that he was president, she was secretary and he was closing the restaurant.
Nearly a year later, Mancini decided to suddenly close the restaurant on July 12.
"We leave it like that because we don't want any more aggravations," Mancini said. Her husband, Ciro Mancini, a manager at Bellini, plans to open a restaurant called Casanova at 811 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater by the end of August.
Bellini server Angela Rossi is angry. She said she and other servers were blindsided. She received a message that the restaurant would be temporarily closed because of trouble with the air conditioning. But that day, she stopped by the restaurant and saw Mancini and some workers loading a truck near the restaurant.
"It was a big surprise," said Rossi. "All I know is, I don't have a job."
Mancini's partner apparently wasn't pleased, either.
On July 13, Howland filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, saying Mancini emptied the restaurant of kitchen supplies, liquor, computers and telephones.
Curiosity has been swirling about the sudden closure. But mostly, patrons and nearby merchants said they're mourning the loss of a great restaurant.
"Dunedin's going to miss them a lot," said Mike Rey, owner of Paris Hair Design across the street.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.