What's in a Name?

In the restaurant biz, sometimes a lawsuit.

Dolce Vita, a standout in the line of popular Miracle Mile restaurants in the 1970s and '80s before hosting a steady stream of northwest side diners, is returning in a name-only change at Vivande.

Same great food: varieties of pastas, chicken and veal, all in huge portions, prepared literally by mom and dad. But the impetus for the Dolce Vita's return at Vivande's location in a shopping center on the northwest corner of East Broadway and Pantano was hardly sweet for owner John Katerelos.

Indeed, it was a bitter experience of insouciant, disconnected governments and yapping lawyers. It is one in which Katerelos, who grew up in his father's restaurants, can find company. Restaurateurs who follow the rules in selecting and registering their names are finding they are subject to legal threats by restaurants across town or across the country. It hits newcomers and seasoned pros, big and small.

Peter Matiatos is a Tucson lawyer whose Greek immigrant parents owned and operated the Olympic Flame on Tucson's eastside from the early 1980s until 1997. They were put on notice not by another Olympic Flame--and it seemed every sizeable city had one--but by the Olympic Committee. The committee was satisfied if no one used the Olympic rings.

John Katerelos grew up in the business. As children, he and his sisters would hang with their parents, Harry and Irene, at Dolce Vita on Miracle Mile. At 12, he was washing dishes. At 14 he was bussing and at 17 he was serving. By the time he hit 20, and as a student at the University of Arizona, he had his first restaurant, Dolce Vita Express at Kolb Road and Sunrise Drive.

His parents have been exemplary role models. Harry Katerelos "is one of the best restaurant men and is the hardest working," says Gus Lettas. He should know. Lettas and his brother, Andy, have served steaks, chops and prime rib at Gus & Andy's Steak House near the former Miracle Mile's Dolce Vita for more than 50 years.

The Katerelos family moved Dolce Vita from the Miracle Mile, a name abandoned by the city in favor of the more staid Oracle Road, to the northwest side on Thornydale Road. Four years ago, they set out for the eastside. John Katerelos remembers wanting to start fresh, despite the risk of loss of name identification.

When he and a sister chose Vivande--a word for food--they quickly went to the Arizona Secretary of State's office to register the name. They also have maintained registration of Dolce Vita for more than 25 years.

But no one there took the extra few seconds to alert Katerelos to also check the federal registry of trade names. Nor does the state include that simple reminder on any of its papers.

To Katerelos, 26, it seems that such a simple reminder would be a modest but helpful tool for Arizona restaurateurs. It would have prevented what Katerelos got next, an unnecessary clash with celebrity chef and author Carlo Middione, who operates the popular and trendy Vivande Ristorante in San Francisco. Middione gets plenty of splash in San Francisco even for items that are hardly unique such as panzanella.

"It started with a phone call from his wife, who was very pleasant," Katerelos says. "It went very well, I thought. I said that I just wanted her to send me the (federal registration) papers and then we'd take care of it, we'd do the right thing. She said she would talk to her husband and the next thing we know is we get a letter from their lawyer saying we are going to get sued."

Although hit with threats of punitive damages and a claim for his profits, Katerelos does not engage in any trash talk about Middione. He speaks respectfully of Middione's business and success. He moved quickly to settle the matter by bringing back the name Dolce Vita. Customers are being alerted to this change now in the restaurant, signage and advertising.

"The name is everything, especially for restaurants," Katerelos says. "A good number of our customers are winter visitors and they knew us as Vivande. But we're doing everything we can to tell people, Dolce Vita is still us."

A FIGHT IS SIMMERING between Evangelos Vassious, who bought the former Scordato's at Gates Pass and Joseph Scordato, one of the sons of the Scordato's founder.

To Vassious, who has owned and operated Old Times Kafe, a diner on East Prince Road for 16 years, Joe Scordato is trying to confuse customers and take business. Joe Scordato sees Vassious's lawsuit as one that tries to prevent him from using his own name.

Vassious, 50, and his wife Ina, 67, bought Scordato's in February 1999 through their Omega Restaurants, Inc. They remodeled and updated the once venerable restaurant of James Scordato and offered what Vassious and his brother and chef say are dishes from Spain, Italy and Greece.

Joe Scordato, whose brother Daniel owns and operates the popular Vivace, didn't stay idle. Nearly a year ago, he opened Trattoria Guiseppe, at Tanque Verde and Camino Principal, in a spot that had been a revolving door for restaurants. It is some 20 miles across town from the old Scordato's.

Vassious filed suit against Joe Scordato in January. He says he bought the rights to the Scordato name. According to a thin, three-page-plus-one-paragraph complaint filed by Tucson lawyer Thomas M. Bayham, Vassious was granted all rights to the name Scordato's Restaurant and has also registered trade names of Scordato's Restaurants of Tucson and Scordatos.

Discounting the influence of James Scordato and his family's 25-year operation of the restaurant, Bayham claims in the suit that "as a result of the extensive experience, care and skill of (Vassious) in running the restaurant, the trade name 'Scordato's' has acquired a reputation for excellence. It has commanded and still commands a broad market."

Joe Scordato, 46, includes his name on business cards and his name is on a sign in front of the restaurant.

"We don't call this place Scordato's," he says. "And you can't stop a man from using his name. I don't understand the lawsuit."

Joe Scordato says he and his brother, Jim, had an agreement to not sell the rights to the Scordato trade name. Vassious maintains it was included in the purchase.

Scordato's lawyer, Michael Vingelli, says that Vassious' advertising has "been all over the place" from Evangelos' Scordatos to just Evangelos. Indeed, for Valentine's Day, it was advertised as Evangelos' Restaurant & Bar, with the following: In Gates Pass At the old Scordatos.

And Vingelli says Vassious craves publicity.

"That's something they like to make up," counters Vassious, who works Old Times in the mornings and Evangelos' in the afternoon and evenings. "These people, of course, will say anything. I paid dearly for that name and registered it three different ways for me. But I had to start changing the name of my restaurant. Do you know how many people were confused? You look in the Yellow Pages and it reads Scordato Trattoria Guiseppe."

It does, boldly, and above his restaurant. But Vingelli says that's a phone company screw up, not his client's fault.

Pricing also is a problem, at least for Vassious. At Evangelos, expect to pay $25 and up per person. At Trattoria Guiseppe, the most expensive items are $13.95.

"It's gourmet for working men and women," Scordato says.

Which is why Vassious says he had no choice.

"His prices are half mine," Vassious says. "How can I compete with that and the name confusion? Business dropped 50 percent. I've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Vassious now wants that back in "all" of Trattoria Guiseppe's profits.

Vingelli, meanwhile, says he will file a motion to dismiss the suit, which now is before Judge Charles Harrington.

Such a food fight is expensive, says Matiatos, who helped his parents at their Olympic Flame and is a former Vingelli partner. Too expensive--several thousand dollars to $20,000--for most restaurants.

"Pity the guy," Matiatos says, "who opens up the Acropolis Restaurant."

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