Editorial: It’s good to wave goodbye to Porta in Amherst

  • Porta in Amherst on Wednesday has closed. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/6/2019 6:54:49 PM

Running a business in any town is a privilege, not a right. That’s especially true when it comes to restaurants and other nightclubs that covet valuable liquor licenses and want to serve alcohol, which have a different, clearly defined set of rules.

The success of responsible business owners who play by those rules bring tremendous value to communities throughout the culturally-rich and college-dominant Valley. Those that flaunt the rules and whine when they get caught, like the owner of Porta that opened in the old Bertucci’s location in downtown Amherst two months ago, need to be sent on their way.

We’re glad that Amherst’s Board of License Commissioners and the building owner who signed Porta to a five-year lease have done just that, stripping the restaurant of its right to sell alcohol and then canceling its lease altogether.

When Porta opened its doors on March 2, it was billed as a new Italian restaurant featuring brick-oven pizza and greeted as an exciting new addition to the Amherst restaurant scene.

In less than two months, however; the eatery and bar has ceased operations after town officials revoked its liquor license for what they described as “grave” and “egregious” violations of state alcohol laws and local permitting. What’s more, the building’s owner evicted Porta, securing and changing the locks on the building that it occupied at 51 East Pleasant St.

The troubles at Porta, owned by Richard Annunziata, started within weeks of its grand opening. Police and town officials began receiving complaints about the new restaurant, including college students being served low-priced drinks, excessive noise related to karaoke nights and concerns that it may be acting as a nightclub.

A police check of Porta just weeks after it opened found more problems. Officers observed minors being served alcohol; patrons allowed to enter without having their IDs scanned; staff not announcing the last call for alcohol; no food available when alcohol was served; and the business staying open beyond its permitted hours of 11:30 p.m.

One 19-year-old Melrose man was arrested after he was seen leaving Porta after midnight with a cup of alcohol and who, police say, used a fake Maine license to access the bar.

The Amherst Board of License Commissioners unanimously voted to revoke Porta’s liquor license for three days on April 5. Annunziata, who runs Michael Vincent Pizza in Long Branch, New Jersey, said at the time that he would not appeal the ruling. He told the commission that apart from problems with an electronic ID scanner, the issues were really about a dispute he had with the town over when the restaurant was required to close.

One would think that such a penalty so early in the life of a local restaurant would send a clear message that it get with the program. Instead, the problems at Porta got even worse and were, as Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone put it before the license commissioners, “as disturbing as anything he’s seen in his tenure.” Livingstone has worked in law enforcement for four decades.

Two weeks after the three-day license suspension, officers working plainclothes details found what they described as an uncontrolled environment at Porta in which customers were able to serve themselves. They observed over consumption of alcohol by patrons with no staff supervising them and the lack of an ID scanner. They found a 16-year-old boy who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, observed one man go behind the bar and chug a bottle of whiskey and three underage females who had used UMass IDs to get inside.

Some female patrons even reported that they were asked to show various body parts to access the bar.

“Essentially, it was a free for all ...” said Patrol Officer Matthew Frydryk, one of four Amherst police officers who testified before the Board of License commissioners.

The testimony was enough for the Board of License Commissioners to revoke Porta’s liquor license, an action that is not common in the town, but one that was the right decision given the seriousness of violations uncovered at the fledgling restaurant. At issue is not merely a repeated flouting of local and state laws, but more important, public safety.

We commend Amherst town officials for taking a serious, no-nonsense approach to enforcing the rules under which Porta was allowed to operate. The kinds of violations uncovered by police are indeed egregious and apart from showing a lack of responsibility, could very easily create dangerous, even life-threatening situations for patrons and others when alcohol is involved.

In addition, Porta’s loosey-goosey business operations ran counterproductive to the town and university’s ongoing efforts to combat underage drinking and overconsumption.

In an interview with the Gazette in late March, Annunziata said that Porta is “really what the people of Amherst want to make of it,” and that its doors “are open with love to everybody.”

Left unchecked in a college town, one can see how that philosophy quickly becomes a recipe for danger.

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