Bronx restaurant owner’s plan to sue Health Dept. over letter grading system

A meeting to the first steps of a lawsuit against the Health Dept. took place at Mamma Lucia’s. Merchants seen here had just about enough with the agency over its letter grading system.
Photo by David Cruz

Some east Bronx eateries are ready to sue the city Health Department, giving an F to the agency’s letter grade system.

Papers are being prepared on behalf of the Board of Health Public Review Committee, a cadre of small-business owners making a living in the restaurant industry.

They met at Mamma Lucia’s Restaurant in Locust Point on Dec. 3 to battle the rating system they say is hurting their bottom line and creating confusion.

They’ve now set a 7 p.m. meeting there Dec. 10 to finalize their case and are asking eatery owners to join their fight.

Launched in 2009, the city grading system slaps A, B, or C grades on storefronts, akin to what restaurateurs call a Scarlett letter that can make or break a business.

DOH inspectors fan out, making unannounced stops at restaurants.

But the group feels DOH oversteps its authority by functioning as a shadow agency, allowing its ten-member Board of Health to create its own rules, superseding the City Council.

Their lawsuit is similar to a class-action suit by restaurant advocates over the city’s ban on 16-ounce and larger sugary drinks early this fall. In both cases, plaintiffs will also argue that DOH behaves as a shadow agency with no oversight.

Stiff fines

Members are also fed up over the agency’s skyhigh letter grade fines of up to $585, with some violations having no direct link to food cleanliness.

“My biggest gripe is inconsistency,” said Richie Di Nardo, owner of Emilio’s Family Restaurant in Morris Park.

“You get different health department inspectors and one says one thing, the other says another.”

Di Nardo’s been hit with thousands in fines ranging from live mice to improper plumbing. He doesn’t mind inspectors dropping by, but wishes they gave him warnings instead of steep fines.

“You can’t go around, give fines and expect that to be educational,” said Di Nardo, whose pizzeria now holds a “Grade Pending” rating.

Megan Zangaglia, who runs the grade-A McGee’s Tavern in Throggs Neck, has had inspectors drop by her tavern six times since opening a year and a half ago. Since then she’s paid out thousands in fines.

Revenue machine?

Rosetta Lawless, owner of the Shamrock Inn in Pelham Bay for seven years, is convinced DOH uses the restaurant industry as a revenue machine.

She’s seen inspectors make surprise inspections this year, resulting in several hundred dollars in fines for unsanitary conditions.

Her beef stems from inspectors often focusing their attention on violations that have nothing to do with food, including one incident where she had a hole in her ceiling.

The last violation – an improper food thermometer – drove her to contest the charge at a tribunal hearing at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.

“They wouldn’t listen to my evidence,” said Lawless, ultimately fined $300.

Slapped with a B rating, Lawless has been inviting anyone to inspect her kitchen and the rest of the premises themselves.

The group is the brainchild of of Mamma Lucia’s owner and perennial political candidate Egidio Sementilli.

Cash cows

Calling Bronx restaurants “cash cows,” Sementilli thinks targeting small businesses is a city revenue scheme.

“The small mom and pop business cannot absorb these abusive fees,” said Sementilli, who’s now hired attorney Aniello Grimaldi to take the case.

“The city is putting people out of business and it’s not fair,” said Grimaldi. “There’s no end to it.”

Health Department spokeswoman Chanel Caraway, however, sees the letter grading system as a way to “bolster food safety, not to generate profits.”

“The majority of restaurants that uphold high standards of cleanliness and food safety are not paying fines,” she said.

David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at or by phone at (718) 742-3383

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