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Pizza pie in your eye

Simon says: Why can't Boston be more like Indianapolis?

With the exception of television, of course, nothing so symbolizes the great leveling of America -- our right to think alike and look alike -- as the mall. And from its perch in Indianapolis, known for auto racing and the Kiwanis, no one has done more to celebrate our sameness -- at premium prices -- than the Simon family, the nation's largest mall operator. In all, Simon Property Group has a stake in nearly 300 properties nationwide, meaning all those Simons -- Melvin and Herbert and David -- can travel America and always feel right at home, which is as it should be.

It is guys like George Chapdelaine and what he represents, however, who don't fit Simon's World.

To Simon, with a market value of about $40 billion, Chapdelaine's tiny Boston Restaurant Group is just a name on a lease somewhere until a bigger opportunity comes along. To those who know Boston, however, Chapdelaine's Pizzeria Regina remains something distinctive. There is plenty of good pizza in this town, but Regina's wafer-thin slices say ''pizza" in Boston the same way ''Legal" says seafood.

No matter. Pizzeria Regina is about to get the heave-ho from two of its most profitable locations, the Burlington and South Shore malls, because Simon is replacing them with Villa Pizza, a fast-growing New Jersey chain of 300 stores already in dozens of Simon malls. Simon is dumping Regina not because it doesn't like its pizza, but because Simon can put Villa in food courts across the country.

Little guys get run over by big guys all the time. It happens in football, and it happens in business. But we don't have to admire it -- not when it happens this way.

Chapdelaine has been Regina's chief executive for 25 years. And for more than three years, he thought he was talking with two Simon executives he had known for years, Allen Kaplan and Carolyn Preston, about renewing his leases. Only last year did they break the news to him that they had leased his Braintree and Burlington stores to Villa Pizza three years earlier. Repeat: three years earlier!

''I was flabbergasted," Chapdelaine says. The executives then proposed he take an alternative spot in the Burlington mall, he says, only to pull that back when they found Indianapolis had given Villa an exclusive. Chapdelaine says Simon never told him why they kept the Villa leases a secret.

As it turns out, everyone knew the game was over before it started -- everyone but Pizzeria Regina. Here, for instance, is an exchange of e-mails between Preston, Simon's assistant vice president for leasing, and Jackie Reynolds, who then worked at the Burlington Mall. They were unearthed as part of Regina's lawsuit, filed in Middlesex Superior Court, accusing Simon of making ''fraudulent representations." The e-mails are from 2002 -- two years before they let Regina in on the joke.

''Carolyn, I was printing out some leases for our files and was wondering what the above lease is?" wrote Reynolds. ''Is this replacing Pizzeria Regina or is it part of it?"

''This is a new tenant for Regina when the lease expires," responded Preston. ''But Regina has no idea. This still needs to be kept VERY CONFIDENTIAL."

''Allen [Kaplan] wants to re-iterate the highly confidential nature of this lease," Preston said in another e-mail. ''Put it away for your eyes only and ask questions later. We do not want this to become public knowledge."

This is no way to treat a longtime partner. A Simon spokesman and its lawyer declined to comment. In court papers Simon denies any wrongdoing, but acknowledges its affiliate signed a lease with Villa ''before 2002."

Tomorrow, Pizzeria Regina will be in court, trying to block its eviction from Burlington Mall, where it has done business for a quarter-century. Exhibit A should be a slice of Regina's pizza. In this complicated world, good pizza should still matter.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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