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Parks Dept. seeking to replace glitzy Bayside eatery

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The city's Parks Department said it is seeking a replacement for Bayside's Caffé on the Green when the popular catering hall's license expires in January. But the owner of the concession, accused of shoddy recordkeeping in an audit earlier this year, said he still plans to either remain at the site or move into another neighborhood locale next year.

In a statement, the Parks Department said it is currently looking for a concessionaire to move into the Caffé's site at 201-10 Cross Island Parkway during the first quarter of 2009. The agency put out a request for proposal in August and all proposals are due by the end of October, Parks said.

"In a legal settlement with the current concessionaire, known as Caffé on the Green, the license for operation will expire in January 2009," the Parks statement said. "Parks anticipates that the selected concessionaire will begin operation of the site in February 2009."

But Joe Franco, the owner, said he is still negotiating with the city to keep Caffé on the Green at its Cross Island Parkway spot. He said he would move the catering hall to one of several properties in Bayside that he owns if he cannot reach an agreement with the city.

In June, an audit by the office of city Comptroller William Thompson found Caffé on the Green had "deficiencies so severe that the comptroller could not determine whether all gross receipts have been actually reported to the city."

Thompson's office determined that Merissa Restaurant Corp., the management company for the catering hall, did not account for more than $900,000 in income, which would have given the city more than $120,000 in revenues.

Howard Weiss, an attorney representing Merissa, said the $900,000 was mostly from tips, which the company understood not to be included in gross revenues.

Franco was identified by an FBI agent as a Gambino crime family member during a 1998 labor tribunal. But Sid Davidoff, Franco's attorney, denied his client has mob ties.

"It's certainly not final that I'm going to be out of here by next year," Franco said. "But we're stunned. We've been here 17 years and have never had any incidents with the Parks Department or been late with any rent payments. [The city] never gave us a reason why they're doing this. We're in the dark."

Franco said the catering hall has improved the neighborhood since he opened it in 1991. He said he believed the comptroller's audit had been blown out of proportion.

"We had a great audit," he said. "There was a lot of smoke and no fire at all."

Eugene Kelty, the Community Board 7 chairman, recently wrote a letter to Deputy Mayors Ed Skyler and Joseph Leiber in which he said he did not think a request for proposal should have been released since Franco had "not been formally charged with any wrongdoing."

"The board will not support a person involved in criminal wrongdoing, but he's not been found to have done anything wrong," Kelty said in an interview. "I think there's something wrong about the way the Parks Department has been going about this. It seems like the city is stacking up against the guy. They shouldn't be playing covert operations. I've never had any complaints against his business."

Kelty said he hopes that the site will continue to host a continental catering hall of some sort.

"If I get some sort of monstrosity over there, there's going to be holy hell to pay," he said.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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