Tag Archives: north tonawanda

Valenti’s: Where are they Now?

24 Jan

A little over a year ago, then-Buffalo News restaurant critic Janice Okun reviewed a seemingly pedestrian and typical red sauce joint that had recently opened in a plaza in North Tonawanda.

In ten years of blogging, no other series of blog posts I’ve ever done so completely unraveled some bad journalism, a pack of clumsy lies, or generated quite as much conversation in comments and social media. The saga of Valenti’s will go down in the annals of western New York’s culinary lore. 

 At the time, it was fun to deconstruct Okun’s reviews, and how they emphasized booth comfort while de-emphasizing food taste and quality. Yet the Valenti’s review was different, because Okun’s review recounted how the young owner-chef had recently returned to his native western New York after stints as an executive chef in Texas and Florida. But that’s not all – Valenti was reportedly so accomplished that he supposedly competed against – and defeated – celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the TV program “Iron Chef America”. This was a lie. It was alleged that Mr. Valenti’s culinary excellence had rendered the lowly parsnip into something so delightful that the judges were floored.  Here is a snippet from Okun’s review, which I annotated at the time: 

To this day, I don’t know what constitutes “parsnip cuisine”, nor do I understand how it could be the “parsnips that did it” if, apparently, they were the secret ingredient for the fictional episode on which Valenti never appeared.  In fact, the image shown above reflects the Buffalo News’ first edit of the review, to remove a mention that Valenti had appeared on Iron Chef America in 2003. At that time, no such show existed. Valenti also claimed to have graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1993 – another lie confirmed by that institution’s spokesman, Jeff Levine. By the end of that particular Friday, Okun’s review in the online Gusto was changed to read thusly: 

As it turned out, he never could have been a cook at Mama Leone’s, either, as it had long since closed by the time he allegedly graduated from the CIA

But don’t blame Ms. Okun – she was doing what a lot of journalists do; transcribing press releases almost verbatim.

But Valenti’s had bigger problems than just a cook with a false resume. Terry Valenti and his girlfriend Lori Brocuglio opened the restaurant with a partner in September 2011. It was a problem tenant for plaza owner Frank Budwey almost from day one. By early February, Valenti’s was evicted for failing to pay back rent. It had loads of debt and a trail of people who had been taken advantage of.  Among them was Valenti’s and Brocuglio’s nominal “partner” in the business, Melissa Janiszewski, who had signed on for all the business’ liabilities, but had no access to the restaurant’s finances, no signing privileges on the business’ accounts, and (ultimately luckily for her), was not named on the lease.  It appeared to be was a bust-out scenario, where Valenti and Brocuglio used Janiszewski’s good credit to run up debt, skip town, and leave her holding the bag. Luckily, she got wise and sought help, but not soon enough to avoid a bankruptcy filing. 

Dramatically, during the late January 2012 eviction trial in North Tonawanda City Court, Terry Valenti was taken into custody on a Texas felony warrant for forgery. After losing his job at Captain Hiram’s in Florida, Valenti moved to Texas, where he cooked at a retirement community in Odessa. Valenti stands accused of forging an ex-girlfriend’s name on a Power of Attorney and title, to fraudulently transfer a motor vehicle for his benefit. The whole saga is available here, with an innocuous takedown of a Janice Okun “review”, updated herehereherehereherehere, and here.)

So, where are they now? 

By late February, Budwey had contracted with Cash Auctions to sell off the contents of Valenti’s Restaurant. The building now houses North Tonawanda’s own branch of Mighty Taco. 

In April 2012, a Midland County Texas grand jury indicted Valenti on the forgery charge. Interestingly, around that same time, there was a rumor that Valenti was back in western New York, looking to start up a new restaurant on Delaware Avenue, and was supposedly trying to recruit people who had worked for him in North Tonawanda.  This turned out never to have materialized, thankfully. 

By late June 2012, the Texas charges against Valenti were still pending, and he was appearing there in person with counsel. Meanwhile, in Florida, Valenti’s ex-wife initiated a court action seeking physical custody of their son. Lori Brocuglio’s ex-husband in Florida had custody of their son, and an action was brought to allow his new wife to adopt. Brocuglio contested the adoption, but the court instructed her that she needed physically to appear in court to testify – the problem is that there were a couple of minor warrants out for Ms. Brocuglio in that state, rendering her appearance a tricky proposition, at best. Meanwhile, Mr. Budwey’s criminal complaint against Ms. Brocuglio for grand larceny is still pending in North Tonawanda City Court and scheduled for an appearance in February. 

Meanwhile, the entire time they lived in western New York, Valenti and Brocuglio rented a living space in Eden. 

By July, Valenti had rejected a guilty plea in Texas that would have resulted in probation, court costs, and restitution. As for the adoption case involving Ms. Brocuglio, when process servers in New York attempted to serve papers on her, Valenti told them that she had moved back to Connecticut. This was quickly resolved – during the time that Mr. Valenti had to appear in Texas, they re-served papers in Eden knowing that the only person who would be home would be Ms. Brocuglio.  On July 29th, she was home, and she was served. 

But Valenti and Brocuglio attempted to fight back.  Valenti sought a temporary restraining order against Valenti’s ex-girlfriend, but failed to serve it in a way that could be enforced against a non-resident of New York. At best, it was a nullity; at worst, it was an attempt to intimidate the star witness in the Texas forgery trial. Nothing ever came of the TRO. Lori Brocuglio lost her parental rights as to the son in Florida in November on the grounds of abandonment. Terry Valenti’s ex now has physical custody of their son in New York. He is also about $13,000 in arrears on child support. There are no-contact orders imposed upon Valenti and Brocuglio in connection with these actions. The forgery action in Texas had to be re-filed and a new indictment was issued in December, and that matter is still pending. 

About that place in Eden: as you might expect, Valenti and Brocuglio ended up mistreating their landlords there, as well. They were forced to bring two eviction actions against them; the first time, they obtained an emergency rent assistance loan from Erie County, and the back rent was paid. By July 2012, the landlords were dealing primarily with Brocuglio, who indicated she was going to Texas. After the second eviction for non-payment, the judge gave Valenti and Brocuglio a week to show receipts that $3,000 was paid.  It hadn’t been. Not only did Valenti and Brocuglio skip out on back rent, but they are alleged to have stolen or sold items belonging to the landlords that were stored on the property, such as an upright air compressor, a drill press, welders, and a John Deere tractor and trailer.  The house was left in a horrible state, filled with garbage and junk. They left moldy, rotten food in the refrigerator, moldy clothes in the washer, food and garbage in the dishwasher, 36 bags of garbage, six truckloads of garbage furniture, six very large televisions, and tons of clothes and belongings left behind. Among the treats Valenti and Brocuglio left behind was shut-off of all utilities for non-payment, including $800 for electric fees. Because the electric system ultimately needed to be changed, it took three months and thousands of dollars to do so and also to clean up the property. 

Their whereabouts are not precisely known at this time, but Ms. Brocuglio’s grand larceny charge is set for an appearance in North Tonawanda City Court on February 7th.  There are also rumors swirling of new charges. 

Throughout all of this – right up to the present day – a very cohesive group of former strangers has formed, all with one thing in common – each one has been cheated or mistreated by Mr. Valenti, Ms. Brocuglio, or both. Through a bizarre set of Artvoice posts – all relating to a strange restaurant review in the Buffalo News – these people have developed a virtual support group to help each other find out where these two are, what they’re up to, whom they might be taking advantage of, and to generally vent about the wrongs done to them at the hands of Iron Chef Parsnips and his henchwoman. There have been bankruptcies, lawsuits, criminal actions, threats, harassment, child custody actions, evictions – federal, state, and interstate civil and criminal litigation has arisen as a result of two apparent sociopaths riding roughshod through the country, leaving behind a trail of debt, lies, broken lives, and broken property. The Valenti / Brocuglio fact pattern could very easily be an essay question on a bar exam. 

In the end, be nice to people. Treat them with respect, fairness, and kindness. If you don’t, you could be in for a world of hurt, and karma will indeed maintain its reputation for being a bitch. 

Valenti’s: The North Tonawanda FOIL

10 Feb

When Terry Valenti called in to the Shredd & Ragan show some weeks ago, he downplayed the police involvement at his now-defunct restaurant as being no big deal. Here are the police reports on Valenti’s dating back to October last year. Is this any way to run a business or conduct oneself?  

On 11/1/11, Valenti threw Brocuglio and Janiszewski off the property, and purported to fire them.

On 11/18/11, Brocuglio claimed that she was being harassed by an ex-employee, and applied for a restraining order.

On 11/26/11, Brocuglio argued with fired employee William Ripley over a “company car”. Brocuglio accused Ripley’s girlfriend of striking her.

On 12/31/11 at 11pm, a black Ford F-250 backed into the east door of the restaurant. Valenti claims he didn’t know whose truck it was, and that he didn’t get the plate number. It was, of course, the truck driven by Lori Brocuglio, but he did not admit this to the police until the following day.  Brocuglio told a police officer that she rammed the truck into the restaurant because, “we were fighting and he went to hit me so I tried backing away but I put it in gear moving forward and hitting the window”. 

On 1/1/12, Valenti and Brocuglio were in an altercation, and Brocuglio’s son was present for it.

On 1/10/12, Budwey made his complaint to the police about the bad $3,000 rent check. 

On 1/11/12, Budwey blocked the doors and told patrons to leave. A Valenti’s employee, Debbie Reining claimed Budwey pushed her out of the store, and pled out a harassment complaint against him. 

On 1/27/12, Budwey returned to the restaurant to curse Brocuglio out using some colorful language. 

Valenti’s: The North Tonawanda FOIL

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The End of Valenti’s Restaurant

1 Feb

Yesterday afternoon, North Tonawanda City Court Judge William Lewis awarded Frank Budwey a warrant of eviction against Desires Unlimited d/b/a Valenti’s Restaurant, and a money judgment for $5,200 in unpaid rent, plus $500 in costs and attorney’s fees.  Valenti’s has 30 days to appeal. 

The unusually long and contentious eviction trial took place over two days, and ended one of the more bizarre restaurant stories in recent memory. Just five short weeks ago, veteran Buffalo News restaurant critic Janice Okun lauded the volume of Valenti’s portions and booths, awarding it 2 1/2 stars. In that review, Okun repeated boasts that co-owners Terry Valenti and Lori Brocuglio had made about Valenti’s work history, including a wild claim that Valenti had defeated Bobby Flay on the TV program Iron Chef America with an award-winning dish of sea bass stuffed with artichokes and parsnips – quite possibly the most exotic “haute cuisine” Valenti could imagine. 

But Valenti’s had bigger problems than just a cook with a false resume. Although Budwey had waived the rent for part of October and all of November, he fully expected payment for December and January at $3,000 per month. By late December, Valenti’s still owed that month’s rent, and was losing purveyor accounts for non-payment. Valenti and Brocuglio paid Budwey $300 around that timeDoctored receipt, and a dispute arose at trial whether they paid $500 or $1500 in cash in early January. The court found that Valenti’s had, in fact, paid $500, because Budwey presented contemporaneous evidence of the cash deposits in both his business ledger and his bank records. He claimed that Lori Brocuglio, who admitted writing “payment in full” on the receipt also doctored it to read $1,500 instead of $500.  

The legal issue is that accepting money as “payment in full” would have potentially bound Budwey to that figure for rents then due and owing. The judge found, however, that other communications from clearly showed that he did not intend to be so bound. Around the same time the receipt was given, a Valenti’s check was made out to Frank “Budway” for $3,000.  Much of Tuesday’s trial centered around how Budwey got the check, and who wrote it. Budwey said either Lori or Terry gave it to him, and he took it to M&T, where he discovered that it would not clear. Budwey then turned the check over to the authorities, and Brocuglio awaits trial on misdemeanor charges of knowingly passing a bad check. 

Here is an example of a check that Brocuglio admits to having written: 

Compare that to the disputed $3,000 rent check that took up so much testimony and argument at trial: 

The mis-spelling of Budway’s name matches Brocuglio’s clumsily constructed Facebook page from last week. 

In rendering his decision, Judge Lewis said that “Brocuglio’s claims fly in the face of the testimony and documents”. He found that it was disingenuous for her to suggest that Budwey forged the check.  Brocuglio likely didn’t realize that Budwey had kept two voice mails she left for him in early January. In the first message, which was played for the judge in court, Brocuglio acknowledges that Terry Valenti had given the check to Budwey, and asks him not to cash it. She said that they would pay the rent via certified funds instead. However, the next day Brocuglio called again, and had completely changed her story.  In a second voice mail played for the judge in court, Brocuglio got a message that Budwey had tried to cash the check, and was notified that the police were now involved. In both calls, she alluded to getting a lawyer to go after Budwey, but now denies knowing of any check, implying that Budwey stole or forged it. 

Brocuglio also claimed that Budwey had agreed to waive the rent for December and January, but the documentary evidence directly contradicted that testimony. 

Brocuglio claimed to the judge that they were ready, willing, and able to pay the rent, but that a dispute that arose with Brocuglio’s nominal “partner” in the business, Melissa Janiszewski, had tied up the bank account. Janiszewski spoke to me in court and disputed this claim, stating that she had no signing privileges on the account, was not named on the account, and that Brocuglio and Valenti had deliberately kept her in the dark about the business’ finances. It was also revealed that Janiszewski, a legal co-owner in the Valenti’s venture, was not named on the lease. Since there’s a money judgment arising out of that lease, she’s rather lucky in this respect, but it indicates that as early as the formation of the business, Valenti and Brocuglio appeared to be conspiring to use Janiszewski as an unwitting pawn in a scheme to run up credit with no intention of repayment. Instead, an old DBA of Terry Valenti’s dating back a decade, the sex-toy-shop-sounding “Desires Unlimited” was listed on the lease as DBA Valenti’s Restaurant. However, a DBA is merely a business name – it is not a legal entity. That’s why the name of a person or corporation precedes the letters “DBA” on legal documents. In this case, however, regardless of the illegality of one DBA doing business as another DBA, Lori Brocuglio signed the lease as a personal guarantor. 

In a dramatic twist in the middle of the trial, Terry Valenti, who looked quite different without his facial hair and bandanna, was escorted from the courtroom by deputies and did not return. Mr. Valenti was apprehended by the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office on a felony warrant for forgery originating from Midland County, Texas. After losing his job at Captain Hiram’s in Florida, Valenti moved to Texas, where he cooked at a retirement community in Odessa. Valenti stands accused of forging an ex-girlfriend’s name on a Power of Attorney and title, to fraudulently transfer a motor vehicle for his benefit. Mr. Valenti was led out while Ms. Brocuglio stood at trial with her lawyer, and they were advised of Mr. Valenti’s unexpected departure during a break in the proceedings. He awaits extradition proceedings in the Niagara County Jail

After the proceedings, Mr. Budwey suggested that the Valenti defendants waive any right to retrieve belongings from the restaurant property, and that Budwey would in turn waive the money judgment. For his part, Budwey was happy to have his building back, in the hopes that he can now re-rent it to a less dramatic, more competent tenant. Brocuglio and Valenti had boasted of taking Budwey to Supreme Court for damages relating to his alleged self-help and constructive eviction measures, but with Valenti on his way to Texas and Brocuglio now with a $5000+ judgment over her head, and being behind on the rent at her residential apartment in Eden, it is unknown whether any such action will be pursued. 

Sources who contacted me yesterday add to the story – in running their business, Valenti and Brocuglio used fake social security numbers. When one vendor investigated the Valenti’s operators in an effort to secure fees owed, they discovered that staff – when paid – was paid cash or by business check without required withholdings. They also found that Valenti and Brocuglio had a scheme in the works to use the time between service of the notice to quit and the eviction trial to gut the building and auction off all the contents – Budwey’s “self help” prevented that scheme from taking place, but that Valenti had apparently retained an auctioneer for that purpose. 

Valenti’s restaurant is no more. It leaves behind a trail of cheated vendors and ex-partners. From the documents shown in court, it is safe to presume that it was deceitful not only in its operation, but even in its very foundation. I don’t know whether this is a unique situation, or one that is common in every place, all the time. In the end, Valenti’s taught us that lying isn’t a good business plan, and that it doesn’t take much to operate a reasonably successful red sauce joint in a small Niagara County city, as long as you treat your patrons and employees with respect, and serve decent food at a reasonable price. 

The whole saga (so far) is available here, with an innocuous takedown of a Janice Okun “review”, updated hereherehereherehere, here, and here.)

 

Thus Spake Terry Valenti

19 Jan

Terry Valenti called in to Shredd and Ragan on WEDG 103.3-FM, and the audio of that call was played on air Thursday morning. Here is the summary of what he said:

  • He denies owing anyone any money.
  • When asked whether a check was bounced off Frank Budwey, he replied, “yes and no”, and accuses Budwey of taking an unsigned check off the counter despite them having paid him cash.
  • Valenti claims that they moved in Sept. 26th, and that the deal was for free rent for October, November, and December. In early January, Budwey demanded rent for December. They had a dispute, and Budwey asked Valenti to “just give me something.” They paid him some cash and claim to have the receipt.
  • Lori was arrested and bailed out soon thereafter, and she has an attorney assisting her.
  • Valenti never talked to Janice Okun about anything – Lori did, and his PR people did.
  • He claims that the Iron Chef thing is all a big misunderstanding. He did a “mock Iron Chef” in Florida, and backdated it to 2003 for some reason that I didn’t comprehend.  The audio of him blatantly claiming to Channel 7 to have appeared on Iron Chef America was played for him, and he said that he “shouldn’t have said it like that.”
  • He admits that he never attended the CIA, and that he lied in 2007 on an application to get a job.
  • He says he’s trying to come clean because he’s put his business and his employees in a “predicament”.
  • Valenti claims he wanted to just open up a little restaurant, and he hired a marketing company that took the lies that he told a Florida reporter and used that information to puff the North Tonawanda venture.
  • Did he work at Mamma Leone’s? He says he worked at _a_ Mamma Leone’s in New York City. He denies working for _the_ Mamma Leone’s. There is no evidence of another Mamma Leone’s existing in New York City – indeed, for an Italian Restaurant to do so would be a blatant violation of every intellectual property law and theory I can think of.  He said there were “twenty” Mamma Leones in New York City. That is as blatant a lie as saying you’re a Hell’s Angel, or an Iron Chef winner, or a CIA graduate.
  • Mr. Valenti claims to understand the blowback against him, and finally denies ever claiming that he was a member of the Hell’s Angels. This audio right here puts the lie to that (audio NSFW).


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Email me at buffalopundit[at]gmail.com

Valenti’s: How the Story Has Changed (UPDATE & BUMP)

18 Jan

 

UPDATE & BUMP: Terry Valenti called the Shredd & Ragan show on 103.3-FM the Edge, and the recording of that conversation will be played on air around 7:45am on Thursday the 19th. I’ll be on the phone with them right afterwards.

It’s become the Valenti’s Restaurant Massacree. Arlo Guthrie could do a 30 minute monologue about it in talking blues style, if there was an underlying anti-war theme to be had.

If you missed it, I spoke with Shredd and Ragan from WEDG 103.3-FM on Tuesday morning to talk about Janice Okun, restaurant reviews, the Buffalo News, Valenti’s, and how all of it ties in together. The audio of the full interview is here.

For those of you who are checking this out to find out more, here is the compendium of Valenti’s posts so far:

1. “Two and a Half WTFs” is the original post from December 19th, now boasting over 650 comments, which have caused a very sordid and criminal tale to unfold about the purported owner(s) of Valenti’s, including a “secret” third partner, allegations of restraining orders, fraud, check kiting, violations of law and statute, battery, and a place that is apparently poorly run by some allegedly shady characters.  It was here that we first learned that Valenti never appeared on Iron Chef, never worked at Mamma Leone’s, and never attended, much less graduated from, the Culinary Institute of America – a claim that I uncovered from a Florida publication.

2. “Valenti’s Coda“, also from December 19th and headlined far too soon, pokes fun at the Buffalo News’ hasty and clumsy correction of Janice Okun’s original review of Valenti’s, which contained the false statements about Iron Chef battle parsnips. Andrew Galarneau, the Buffalo News’ food editor, assured me on Facebook that my Artvoice posts and comments at the Buffalo News’ own site played absolutely no part in the non-transparent corrections process, and that Jeff Levine from the CIA contacted him about Mr. Valenti’s claim to be a graduate of that institution, although that never appeared in Ms. Okun’s review.

3. “Valenti’s: Still Going” is a January 9th piece referencing MetroWNY’s work speaking to the producers of Iron Chef to verify that Valenti never appeared on that program.

4. “How Not to Run a Business” links to a Tonawanda News article that first uncovered Mr. Valenti’s landlord/tenant dispute with Frank Budwey, and references a Chowhound thread about the matter.

All of the foregoing articles served as a sort of informal assignment editor for this Buffalo News piece that appeared on Saturday.

So far today, I’ve learned more about the third partner, I’ve learned that there is no hearing scheduled yet on any eviction proceeding, that Mr. Budwey is out of the country at the moment, and I found out some other details I’m not at liberty to discuss at this time.

But suffice it to say that this has swiftly turned from a criticism of a poorly researched restaurant review, into civil eviction litigation, and now into bona fide criminal reporting.  We’ve turned a corner into hoping that these two people can no longer victimize another unsuspecting, naively trusting ambitious person.

Valenti’s: Still Going

9 Jan

Way back in mid-December, I wrote two posts smacking the Buffalo News and its restaurant reviewer, Janice Okun, for regurgitating untrue claims made by a couple running a red sauce joint in North Tonawanda. The first post is here, the second is here.

The original post is now up to 140+ comments, many of which detail various legal problems and outright lies told by these restaurateurs. It has since drawn the attention of the Metro papers, here.

After contacting the Food Network, and the production company in charge of producing the show Iron Chef, Triage Entertainment, Inc., both companies indicated having no record of Valenti appearing on the show.

“We have a master list that shows every competitor that has appeared on the show,” said Courtney Mattox administrative assistant at Triage. “There is the possibility that his name slipped through the cracks but we keep pretty good records.”

After trying to contact Valenti to provide him the opportunity to prove otherwise, Metro was only able to contact his wife, Lori, who stated “I will not comment on this matter, I will have Terry call you back.”

Terry never called back.

Brian Kahle of Magic Marketing, provided a press release to The Source regarding the restaurant grand opening, which took place Monday, Nov. 14, which read:

“Executive Chef and co-owner, Terry Valenti, is a guy who took-on and defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay during a 2003 episode of TV’s popular ‘Iron Chef.’ When challenged to come up with four great dishes using parsnips, of all things, Terry produced four exquisite offerings, including his Chilean Sea Bass, stuffed with parsnips and artichoke hearts”. His creative dessert choice was a Mango Parsnips Ice Cream, which the judges also loved.”

The funniest thing I saw, however, was this article from Brevard County Florida, outlining Valenti’s elaborate claims about being a CIA graduate, and such a valuable asset to the then-defunct Mamma Leone’s restaurant in Manhattan that the owner “cried” when he resigned.

Click to enlarge

I’ve never seen such a wide and deep volume of utter nonsense just to puff some nondescript restaurant and a nobody chef, and none of it is necessary to run a decent Italian food joint. Interesting what a simple vetting of an Okun review might reveal.