Four decades ago, Italian immigrant Mario Piccolino landed in Scranton via the Bronx and opened a pizzeria. He knew nobody and spoke little English - but his pizza shop not only survived, it thrived.
Today, Buona Pizza has a large, loyal following, and remains a downtown landmark even as many other stores have fled to the suburbs. The Piccolino family - Mario and his brother, and now their sons - thought they'd stay in business another 40 years.
But the city has other ideas.
Mayor Chris Doherty wants to seize Buona Pizza ("The best in town since 1966") through eminent domain and give the real estate to a politically connected developer as part of a $20 million redevelopment project along Lackawanna Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares.
Customers are outraged, calling it a blatant land grab. About 1,200 people have signed a petition demanding that the city back off. Meanwhile, Buona Pizza has vowed to fight the city in court.
"It's not for a wider road, or a flood project. It's just a private developer trying to enrich himself and his friends," said Giovanni Piccolino, 31, a second-generation owner. "We've been there 40 years. We don't owe anything to anybody."
City leaders note that the pizzeria anchors a dilapidated - and highly visible - section of Lackawanna Avenue. Most of the rest of Lackawanna has already been revitalized, making the crumbling buildings along the 500 block stick out.
The plan by developer Donald Rinaldi calls for boutiques, offices, loft-style apartments and other amenities - and a new four-story building where the pizza shop now stands.
"It is a blighted block, and it's our job to keep improving and making things better," Doherty, who did not return phone calls from The Associated Press, told The Times-Tribune of Scranton.
The city believes it has Supreme Court precedent on its side.
In a landmark 2005 case, Kelo v. City of New London, the justices ruled that New London, Conn., could seize homeowners' property for private development, siding with city officials who argued that tax revenues and new jobs from the development would benefit the public.
The court's ruling sparked a nationwide backlash and prompted at least 34 states, including Pennsylvania, to examine their laws regarding eminent domain, the legal process by which the government takes private property for the public's benefit, paying fair market value to the owner.
Last year, the Pennsylvania Legislature approved a bill that generally prohibits local governments from seizing property for private enterprise. But the law, which was signed by Gov. Ed Rendell in May, did not take effect until September - a month after Scranton filed a "declaration of taking" against Buona Pizza in Lackawanna County Court.
"They are certainly violating the spirit of the law," said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition, an Arlington, Va., group that advocates for private property rights. The coalition is a project of the Institute for Justice, which represented homeowners in the Kelo case.
But Doherty said the pizzeria owners rejected the city's offer of compensation, leaving the city little choice but to condemn it. "At the end of the day, this is eminent domain, and usually eminent domain is about money," he said.
The Piccolinos said the city made an initial offer of $265,000 for the Buona Pizza building, which they found as appetizing as a week-old slice of pepperoni. Giovanni Piccolino said it didn't take into account the value of the business.
They do not yet know the price the building would fetch through eminent domain. Their attorney has challenged the condemnation on several legal grounds and a judge has yet to rule.
In any case, the family said it doesn't want money. "We just want to be left alone," Giovanni Piccolino said.
The pizza shop itself is nothing much to look at. It's housed in a drab cinder block building with a dated white-brick facade; inside, there are 12 booths, a few arcade games and not much else. But it is a structurally sound building and people drive for miles to sink their teeth into the chewy, tangy $10 pies.
Customers having lunch there recently said they are solidly behind Buona Pizza.
"You take a 40-year-old business that has faithfully stayed downtown through good times and bad times, and now you tell them, 'You don't fit into our project'? I can't comprehend the arrogance of the leaders of the city," said Daniel Hubbard, 35, munching on a slice.
Piccolino pointed out that Rinaldi and his family contributed $27,000 to Doherty's two mayoral campaigns. The Rinaldis also gave to Gov. Ed Rendell, who traveled to Scranton in 2004 and awarded the project a $9 million state grant.
"It's pay-to-play politics around here," Piccolino said.
Back in the kitchen, his uncle Mario, 66 and semiretired, said he can't understand how the city could take his business.
"Everybody loves Buona Pizza and now you want to throw me out?" he said, kneading 100-pound blobs of dough. "That's not fair. That's not America."
Centre County PA Daily Times: http://www.centredaily.com