New Italian restaurant Porta draws customers, complaints

  • Porta in Amherst. Scott Merzbach

Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2019 12:50:26 PM

AMHERST — Open for less than a month, a new Italian restaurant in downtown Amherst, which doubles as a bar during the evening, is already garnering attention, both positive and negative, from the community.

As college students are turning out for weekly karaoke nights at Porta and diners are discovering the cuisine at the restaurant, town police are responding to occasional noise complaints, and municipal inspectors are checking to see if the business is complying with its permits.

And owners of three similar restaurants on the Eastern seaboard have filed a lawsuit against the business alleging trademark infringement.

Despite the issues since opening March 2, owner Richard Annunziata said Porta, which means door in Italian, will continue to open at 11:30 a.m. daily, serving an array of what he describes as authentic brick oven Neopolitan pizza, along with seafood and chicken dishes, appetizers and a children’s menu.

“This place is really what the people of Amherst want to make of it,” Annunziata said this week. “At night, up until 10, it’s a restaurant and pizzeria. After 10, the college kids come in."

Building Commissioner Rob Morra said he is keeping a close eye on the East Pleasant Street site, previously the home of Bertucci’s, because the current licenses prohibit operating past 11:30 p.m. Yet a routine check recently discovered patrons remaining inside the establishment until 1 a.m.

Morra said inspections have to be completed before the Class 1 restaurant can operate as a Class 2 restaurant and stay open until 1 a.m., as its special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals allows, with a take-out window serving pizza and appetizers remaining open until 2 a.m.

There is also concern that Porta may be acting as a nightclub, with dimmed lights and loud music at times. Morra wrote a memo to Annunziata that Porta can’t advertise itself as a nightclub because they “have a different set of design standards” and “a different occupancy classification from what has been applied for to date.”

On Porta’s first day in business on March 2, which coincided with the pre-St. Patrick’s Day revelry at the University of Massachusetts, green-clad college students that afternoon packed the bar area for low-priced drinks.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he personally visited that day and found no issues with Porta.

On Tuesdays since opening, though, police have responded to several noise complaints related to the karaoke event.

Livingstone said his officers regularly check IDs of patrons and go to bars to make sure no rules are being broken.

“We closely monitor all of our bars,” Livingstone said. “I think we have a good relationship with all our bar owners.”

But Livingstone said officers are not monitoring prices or compliance with state statutes that prohibit bars from having happy hours or daily specials, as well as free or discounted drinks. These issues would usually arise as complaints from other bar owners.

Meanwhile, Pink & Red, LLC filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Springfield, in which it is seeking a jury trial related to trademark infringement, trade dress infringement, unfair competition and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act.

The lawsuit claims that the exterior lettering and the use of painted doors on the exterior, with the words “Eat, Drink, Be Honest,” are a direct copy of another location.

Annunziata said the lawsuit was filed by previous business partners, who have three other locations, in New Jersey in Asbury Park and Jersey City, and in Philadelphia. Annunziata said he’s opposed to their seeking a trademark for the business model.

The Amherst location, he said, is most similar to the one in Asbury Park, where the painted doors in the colors of the Italian flag are on the exterior, along with cursive lettering on a blue background; larger community seating tables are set up inside.

Still, Annunziata argues that he is not aiming for confusion and believes the customer base is likely unaware of the other restaurants also named Porta.

“This is going to be the Amherst Porta, which will be much different than the Jersey Asbury Park one,” Annunziata said.

He claims that the lawsuit is among efforts to put him out of business: The restaurant’s Instagram account was hacked over the weekend, stating that the restaurant was closing; another post encouraged people to order food and drinks and then not pay the bills.  

Porta will start an all-you-can-eat $10.99 brunch on Sunday and hopes to soon have the extended hours of a Class 2 restaurant. Annunziata said he feels that it is essential to have the bar component to make rent payments for the space.

“The food is excellent, and the restaurant is picking up through word of mouth,” Annunziata said. 

“Our doors are open with love to everybody,” Annunziata added.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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