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Tecce’s seeks bankruptcy protection

Eatery says Big Dig caused financial woes

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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It has been a celebrated Italian-American fixture for more than half a century, a thriving North End destination for Boston’s cops, politicians, and celebrities — and anyone else hankering for steak mafia alla marinara.

But Joe Tecce’s Ristorante is in peril. And the owners blame the thing that made the restaurant a dining dynasty: its location at the gateway to the North End. They plan to file for bankruptcy protection today after falling more than $500,000 in debt — because, they say, of the massive disruption caused by the Big Dig.

“It was like a thousand paper cuts that finally caught up to me and bled me to death,’’ said Sal Tecce, the second generation of the family business. He owns the Neapolitan restaurant with his two brothers. “I just need some time to work myself out of this.’’

The $15 billion construction project buried the elevated Central Artery but spanned almost two decades and left a long trail of cracked walls, shifting foundations, and flooded basements across the North End. The damage and discomfort drove away customers and raised the cost of doing business at Joe Tecce’s, on North Washington Street.

Sales fell 50 percent at the restaurant during the worst of the Big Dig — when jackhammers pierced the air, dust covered the streets, and finding parking was considered a miracle. While many other shops closed down, members of the Tecce family used personal funds to keep the restaurant going and make repairs, according to John Morrier, the restaurant’s bankruptcy attorney.

But the money has dried up and the restaurant has fallen behind on expenses after a tough winter. Joe Tecce’s owes about $300,000 to suppliers, vendors, and utilities and roughly $200,000 in unpaid meal, property, and payroll taxes, Morrier said.

The Tecces are planning to reorganize the company, founded by their father in 1948, under Chapter 11 — which means the restaurant would continue to operate and fans of its signature antipasto alla Tecce or lobster fra diavolo would not have to do without.

The reorganization, to be sought in Bankruptcy Court in Boston, would come about six years after Joe Tecce’s filed an estimated $20 million lawsuit against the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, alleging it caused a loss of business and seeking damages.

Adam Hurtubise, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which took over the Turnpike Authority, said the lawsuit is in the discovery phase and declined to comment further. The Big Dig project ended in 2007.

Sal Tecce said he is confident the restaurant’s finances will be turned around so the family can continue the legacy started by his father.

Joseph Tecce, who died at 94 in 2006, had simple beginnings with a fruit stand at Salem and Cross streets in the 1940s.

He later opened Bella Napoli, a Salem Street pizzeria. After a fire destroyed the shop, he launched The Fabulous Joe Tecce’s Restaurant at Salem and Cross streets.

In 1966, the restaurant moved to North Washington Street, where it cultivated a following among boldfaced names like Tip O’Neill, Michael Dukakis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, Nat King Cole, Bobby Orr, and Larry Bird.

“We’re still a great restaurant and making money. The Big Dig caused our financial problems,’’ Sal Tecce said. “We’ve been around since 1948, and we’re going to stay.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com