Angelo Lutz is gambling again. This time, the ex-mob associate hopes to avoid prison.
The former cook for mob boss Joey Merlino has found culinary stardom in South Jersey's BYOB capital, Collingswood, since his release in 2008 from prison, where he served seven years for racketeering, gambling, and extortion.
Now, Lutz is wagering he has the recipe for even bigger restaurant success.
He is moving his 11-table Kitchen Consigliere Cafe from cramped side-street quarters on Powell Lane to a venue three times the size a couple of blocks away at Collings and Haddon Avenues, in the heart of the business district.
He's not only talking about a steadily packed house, with room for 85 per mangiare comodamente in dining areas that pay tribute to Hollywood underworld characters. Lutz also envisions franchise potential, with Kitchen Consigliere Cafes in every metropolitan area where dons do, or have done, what they do.
"The mob is like a brand," Lutz said. "It sells."
He won't say what that has meant to his restaurant's bottom line since it opened in November 2010, other than that he serves 1,600 dinners a month and turns away 80 to 100 potential patrons weekly because of limited space.
But the cost of renovations at the new place, formerly Knight's Bistro, has exceeded original estimates, causing Lutz to dip into money set aside for the first few weeks' operating costs, said business consultant Marty Schieken of Cherry Hill, whose family used to own 15 Shop 'n Bag stores in South Jersey before selling them in 1991.
Kitchen Consigliere has turned to the public for help, launching an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign Aug. 13 to raise $25,000.
As his restaurant's name indicates, Lutz is not exactly a vault about the transgressions that led to his prison stay. He's also straight up about them as part of his online appeal at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/restaurant-expansion: "Unable to borrow funds from banks because of a past felony conviction."
That's followed by venting about banks and policies that prohibit lending to convicted felons.
"Is this a fair practice considering Angelo is now a productive tax paying member of society? We say no, and hope you agree," the site says.
It urges those who "believe in second chances, redemption and modern day success stories" to help Lutz "live his dream and prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks." Perks include a sausage meatball appetizer and dinner with Lutz at "the consigliere's table."
As of Sunday night, Lutz was almost a third of the way to his goal, with $8,230 raised from at least 56 funders and eight days remaining in the campaign.
"This is a reality," he said last week, seated amid work crews, sawdust, and storyboards detailing the new restaurant's interior design, a matter of much secrecy.
The restaurant will open whether the $25,000 is raised or not, though things will be a lot tighter, said Lutz, 49, who lives with his cat, Sonny Franzese, named after a New York mobster, in the South Philadelphia house he inherited from his late parents, Angelo and Helen.
At least a dozen banks have turned down his request for about $100,000 in financing, leaving Lutz to rely on personal loans secured with promissory notes, he and Schieken said.
"There's no money that could be considered from 'the old boys,' " Schieken added.
Asked why anyone should have faith contributing money to a guy who used to lose $15,000 to $20,000 in a day gambling on sports, Lutz said: "This isn't 'Let me get your money, and the place isn't opening up.' . . . I know it's hard to trust people, but the bottom line is this is real. We have to trust, we have to trust a little bit."
The topic brought Schieken to tears. He would not say how much he has invested in the new restaurant, but he said he had found Lutz to be a man of "an amazing amount of honesty and integrity" in the two years he had known him and had helped turn Kitchen Consigliere "around from a substantial loss to a fair profit."
"It's not what he did then, it's what he's doing now," Schieken said.
Collingswood Mayor James Maley said Lutz had "had great success and great fun marketing his past, but it's his past."
Of the new Kitchen Consigliere Cafe, Maley said: "I think it will be a big hit. And I mean that not in a double way!"
Cardiologist Nicholas DePace, who took care of Lutz's parents, has donated $1,500 to their son's new restaurant. His 8-foot Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. statues will be on display in its Rat Pack Lounge.
"He really has made a 180-degree turnaround and has really rehabilitated himself," DePace said.
Except for the weight.
"We're going to work on that," the doctor said.
Diane Mastrull: An Appeal To the MassesWebsite: Indiegogo.com, launched Aug. 13.
Amount raised: $8,230 as of Sunday night.
Campaign's closing date: Sept. 16.
Tentative opening date of new restaurant: Oct. 11.
Number of diners it will seat: 85.