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Cracking Cipriani’s Da Vinci Code

Did restaurateur drop out of Leonardo pier project to dodge G-men’s mob questions?

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Two years ago, Giuseppe Cipriani, boss and heir to the global banquet empire, headed up a proposal to redevelop the old Pier 57 off West 15th Street as the Leonardo—a $300 million offshore Italian mini-theme-park with a catering hall, rooftop pool, shops, crafts, and a museum dedicated to Da Vinci. He and his partners beat out another, sportier bid by Chelsea Piers, and everything looked molto bene. Then early last month, he mysteriously dropped out and wouldn’t explain why. A spokesman for the Leonardo deal, James Capalino, has maintained that Cipriani was worn down by all the bureaucracy. “Giuseppe has just got better uses for his capital right now,” he says, and called his decision to pull out of a 20 percent stake in the deal “a rational business decision.” But that isn’t the entire story: Potential partners in public deals with the city must submit a thorough application detailing past business practices, which is then reviewed by officials from the city’s Department of Investigation. Earlier this year, after submitting the forms, Cipriani received notice that before his application could be approved, city investigators wanted to take a sworn deposition about $120,000 he allegedly gave to a Gambino turncoat in 1999 to settle a labor dispute at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, which he operates. Cipriani has denied making the mob payment. In addition, the city informed him that DOI investigators would be joined by an agent from the FBI and NYPD detectives, also seeking to ask him about alleged payments made to the crime family, among other matters. Cipriani decided to bail. His lawyer, Stanley Arkin, says it would have been foolish for Cipriani to show up for what he thought could be a legal ambush. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to sit there in front of a handful of federal agents and submit to that kind of firing squad,” Arkin says. “Not even the Pope.” Cipriani’s departure has left the majority partner on the Leonardo deal, developer Steve Witkoff, scrambling to find other tenants to occupy the space, which until recently was used as a bus depot.


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