SPRING HILL — An ownership dispute at a popular Italian restaurant spilled into court this week with allegations of "an intricate, sophisticated scheme of deceit and theft."
Touch of Napoli co-owners and chefs Luigi Barile and Antonio Cacace sued Monday, seeking more than $1 million in damages from Maryann Montalbano, the majority owner of the restaurant.
The suit alleges 13 counts of financial wrongdoing against Montalbano and her husband that involve "fraud, embezzlement and theft of funds and property both criminally and civilly."
The 30-page suit and accompanying documents mention everything from fights at the restaurant and questionable tax filings to business records set on fire and threats of suicide.
"The co-owners of the restaurant are being robbed blind," said Steve Bartlett, a Holiday attorney who represents Barile, 28, and Cacace, 32. "The one owner has been stealing money hand over fist to the detriment of the restaurant."
Montalbano, 57, said Tuesday that the matter "is a personal thing." She is Barile's mother-in-law.
She also called it a misunderstanding, suggesting that Barile and Cacace, native Italians, don't understand customary business practices in the United States.
She referred further questions to her attorney or the business' attorney, neither of whom returned calls Tuesday.
The chefs' attorney said the dispute began soon after the business launched in July 2005. Court records show it escalating in late 2008.
Barile and Cacace asked for financial records about the time Montalbano sought to recover $114,000 she and her husband apparently loaned the business.
The chefs' contend no such loan existed and they never received profits from the partnership. Court documents indicate the restaurant is for sale and burdened by debt.
Montalbano refused to provide all the business records, saying that she burned some receipts because they took up too much room in her garage, documents state.
She "intentionally failed to provide the records requested to conceal her criminal and civil wrongful activities," the lawsuit claims.
In January, Montalbano's husband, Tom, and Cacace were involved in a fight in the restaurant kitchen, said Hernando County Sheriff's Office reports. Deputies received contradictory claims about what occurred and prosecutors didn't file charges.
Days later, Maryann Montalbano told the chefs that the restaurant, which cleared about $11,000 to $14,000 a week, didn't have money to pay the staff, some of whom she fired.
On Jan. 27, she fired Barile, the head chef, but he refused to leave.
Barile and Cacace continue to work and the restaurant, at Powell Avenue and Barclay Road, remains open.
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.