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Finally, Mozz closes and Antonovich is once again Gonetonovich

by Steve Coomes

Mozz is closed.

Finally.

Mercifully.

Matthew Antonovich

And I’m not surprised.

The only thing I’m stunned about is it didn’t close sooner.

I’m not in the business of predicting how well restaurants will or won’t do, so I never wrote publicly that I thought Mozz was a sketchy venture, at best, from the start.

It was overly ambitious and insanely hyped by the concept’s creator, co-owner and executive chef Matthew Antonovich. There was no way it could deliver the promises he so earnestly made, and based on that, I wasn’t the only one disbelieving it would work.

Never in my 21 years of covering restaurants have I heard so much “death watch” gossip about a restaurant as I have this one. It’s been going on for at least six months.

That it’s held on for 22 tumultuous months must be a testament to continued funding by its principal owner, Dr. Mushtaque Juneja, a local anesthesiologist.

When rumors swirled earlier this week that it was closed, I contacted Antonovich to verify that. He said it was — but only temporarily due to a gas leak and that Mozz would reopen next week.

That probably ain’t happening, but not because of a gas leak. According to several sources who sell to Mozz—suppliers who aren’t getting paid on time—it’s likely the problem was a money leak. OK, a hemorrhage, to be exact, and no transfusion of customer cash was coming.

You’re kidding me, right?

In early 2010, well before its audacious Breeders’ Cup week opening, Antonovich emailed me a copy of his first menu and asked me what I thought.

It was unbelievably ambitious—for any restaurant, not just a fine dining place starting up in the middle of the recession in a city whose pool of talented cooks isn’t nearly as deep as its chefs wish it were.

To confirm my suspicions, I sent it to a chef friend who said, “It’s a great menu … if you’ve got 20 prep cooks to do the mis (en place).

An early press release about Mozz claimed it would have a casual side, a serious side, a deli, a classy lounge, live music, farm-to-table this and artisan that—not to mention mozzarella cheese made fresh hourly! Mozz was going to rock Louisville’s culinary world, Antonovich told me in numerous phone conversations. And I kept thinking to myself, “I doubt it, Matt. I really doubt it.”

A backgrounder

In 2009, I got an email from Antonovich, who had just moved back to Louisville after being gone for nearly two decades working as a chef in Dallas and Denver. I’d met him in the late 1980s, when he was executive chef at Casa Grisanti and I was sous chef at its sister restaurant, Sixth Avenue. We were friends.

Since returning to Louisville, he’d seen my work as a food writer and wanted to let me know he was planning on opening a new restaurant in Louisville, and boy was it gonna be spectacular.

Two memories of Antonovich immediately came to mind: he was a tremendously talented cook; yet his natural charm and charisma often got buried beneath his bold ego. Still, it was mostly playful bragging, and you usually rolled your eyes and thought, “That’s Matthew. He is who he is.”

The meal he cooked for me and three friends at Casa Grisanti in 1990 was one of the best in my life. That venerable restaurant’s food was its best under his guidance of the kitchen.

He left in 1991 to become a corporate chef with Grisanti Italian Restaurants, whose then-corporate owner Imasco, bought it thinking it could grow the concept and do battle with Olive Garden (and we know how that ended). Antonovich developed its menus, traveled the country opening restaurants and, as far as I know, did well in the post.

The next time I saw him was in 1993 at a lounge in the Omni Suites Hotel in Chicago, during the National Restaurant Show. He and another Grisanti alum, Bill Hisle, showed up with a gaggle of gals who seemed quite fond of their escorts.

We shook hands and chatted briefly. And that was the last I heard from him until he emailed me in 2009, saying he was coming back to Louisville to spend more time with his daughter who lives here.

And open a restaurant. A big, serious restaurant. In the space home to Ferd Grisanti for four decades.

Really? A pricey place in the middle of J-Town?

Hmm.

Eager to learn more about where he’d been, I Googled his name and found an article about his activities in Dallas. The piece wasn’t positive. (Story 1) Seemed Antonovich got sideways with his partners in a restaurant and left them in the lurch.

Hmm.

Curious, I emailed the author, Nancy Nichols, of D Magazine, to say Antonovich was here and talking about opening a restaurant. Her basic message was, “Watch out. He’s trouble.” Not long after, she filed other stories based on what I was writing. (Story 2. Story 3.)

Yet, I wrote nothing about it, hoping that maybe, just maybe, Antonovich had somehow gotten on the straight-and-narrow path since he’d done Dallas, and maybe he’d do well here.

But over time as he updated me on the restaurant’s progress and shared his wildly grandiose dreams and visions for Mozz, my doubts only grew.

Before the restaurant even opened, the murmuring began. Another chef in Louisville knew of Antonovich’s Dallas misdeeds; a college classmate of his had lost a significant amount of money entrusted to an Antonovich venture.

Just before Mozz opened downtown on Market St. in November 2010, Matthew sent me his final menu. At the bottom was a claim that the pizza served there was “Vera Pizza Napoletana,” meaning certified to the ridiculously rigorous Neapolitan standard of pizza making. I’d spent nine years covering the pizza industry and was fully aware of what he was claiming and didn’t believe he’d put the time into it given his already extensive menu.

To confirm my hunch, before I visited the restaurant, I asked a friend who was going there to check it out. That night he sent me a picture of Mozz’s pizza oven, whose digital thermometer read 645 F, a full 265 degrees cooler than a VPN oven must be.

Picky? Sure. But it confirmed my hunch.

At least a year into its initially good run, Louisville magazine ran a short piece about Mozz in which the restaurant still was claiming it served VPN pizza, so I called him on it. Antonovich vigorously denied trying to deceive anyone, saying he thought Mozz would be VPN certified by the time it opened and had printed its first menu — thousands of them saying so. Since Mozz got so busy that they didn’t bring the VPN inspector to the restaurant, he said the claim had been removed later. Still, someone on staff still made the claim on the record to Louisville magazine.

Earth shattering? No. But it was further confirmation that Antonovich loves to spin the message even more than pizza skins.

More talk about Mozz flowed into the Louisville gossip-sphere. Turnover was constant, and word both inside and outside the restaurant attributed Antonovich’s mercurial moods as a problem. One supplier I talked to said turnover was so bad, he hardly knew the kitchen staff when he called on them.

Multiple suppliers — just friends talking, not even people itching to diss Antonovich — said the restaurant was well behind the normal 30-day payment terms, and some had quit delivering to Mozz altogether. Others demanded a staffer come to their place with cash to pick up their goods.

And then, in April, Antonovich shocked even me with the announcement he was opening Mozzaria on Fourth Street Live! Just like the gushing press release issued about Mozz, Mozzaria’s announcement was full of lofty claims that no one in the industry believed possible to achieve.

And yet, it opened in Derby Week—Antonovich either has something for horse events or the guts of a madman to open restaurants in the busiest times of the year—to little fanfare. (I still don’t know of anyone who’s gone there, but apparently sales are acceptable.)

In July Antonovich was accused in a lawsuit by his partners in Mozzaria of “making unauthorized payments, diverting assets to another business he manages in which he has an ownership stake.” (The suit didn’t specify the business was Mozz, but you draw your own conclusions.)

Documents filed in court said Mozzaria was well behind on its rent and paying creditors, and an email from Antonovich to co-owners, Pallas Partners, said that the business was facing a serious cash crisis.

On Aug. 28, Insider Louisville reported that Antonovich had been forced out of Mozzaria, but between Aug. 29-30, Antonovich was sending me a series of emails saying he had not been forced out, rather Pallas Partners had bought him out. He sent Insider Louisville a press release that was so painfully Pollyanna and hard to believe that we chose not to run it. But if you want a taste of it, here’s the first paragraph:

Matthew Antonovich, President for Mozzaria, LLC, and spokesperson for Mozzaria announced that Pallas Partners has purchased the 4th Street location and will assume the role as owner operator. Antonovich will have exclusive rights to develop the concept in future locations.  In return Antonovich gave Pallas Partners the go ahead to focus their best efforts on his creation Mozzaria, located at Fourth Street Live. Antonovich would provide Pallas a single license agreement for Logo, conceptual and intellectual use of the Mozzaria concept including recipes, culinary and operational manuals. This would give Pallas Partners a great opportunity to give the new business what Antonovich calls a super focus on Louisville Fourth Street Live.

Matthew Saltzman, CEO of Pallas Partners will arrange to provide the restaurant with a capital infusion to support its future operations. Pallas will engage a dedicated team to manage the property with a focus on fulfilling the original vision of the hot new concept that Antonovich created as a multiple unit concept with plans to go national.

National.

Hmm.

Pallas Partners’ Phil Williams also sent me an email insisting Antonovich was not pushed out.

OK, so we were wrong. But when no one answers the phone, it’s hard to get verification.

Williams also wrote in his email that:

Matthew Saltzman/ Pallas Partners reached an amicable settlement with Matthew Antonovich and has purchased his interest in Mozzaria. Mr. Saltzman has been able to secure sufficient capital and credit lines for Mozzaria that will permit the operation to fulfill the potential of the culinary concept created by Mr. Antonovich. Mozzaria looks forward to being a presence at 4th Street Live and is currently looking to hire additional personnel. Mr. Antonovich has graciously offered to provide assistance during this transition stage.

Pallas Partners specializes in assisting companies to work within existing capital constraints and working out of a temporary cash flow difficulty. We regret the loss of Mr. Antonovich’ s culinary skills and vision but the parties made a joint decision that a purchase Mr. Antonovich interest in Mozzaria was in everyone’s best interest. Pallas purchased Mr. Antonovich (sic) ownership based upon the terms that he outlined and requested.

In other words, both parties cut a deal that kept everyone out of court.

Last night when the buzz rose yet again that Mozz had finally melted down (though some say Dr. Juneja is considering reopening it with other operators), I texted and emailed Antonovich to confirm or deny the rumor, but received no response. The phone number to Mozz’s kitchen, which Antonovich asked me to call for any questions, is permanently busy, as is the main number. His mobile phone gives only the message that “the person you’re trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time.”

While there’s no sign on the door confirming it’s closed, every door is locked and the lights are off. Plus, suppliers have said they’ve been told there will be no further deliveries.

As Insider Louisville editor Terry Boyd has said to me many times, “These kinds of stories aren’t about attacking one person or another, it’s just sometimes in our jobs we just have to call bullshit on things people think we’re stupid enough to believe.”

And that’s what we’ve done.

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