Bridgeport’s Testo’s restaurant to close after being sold

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BRIDGEPORT — If the walls of Testo’s could talk, they’d have a lot more to share than recipes for red sauce, meatballs, linguine with clams and filet mignon in a cognac sauce.

Democratic Town Speaker Mario Testa’s famed restaurant and banquet hall has for years been where Bridgeport movers and Connecticut political insiders have chatted and made the deals that, for better or worse , have shaped city and state government and its policies.

Soon, however, Testo’s, located at 1775 Madison Ave. in the North End, will disappear and be replaced by a four-storey, 177-unit apartment complex at market price.

“It’s sold. It’s a done deal. December 31 is the last day,” confirmed Ralph Giacobbe, Testa’s nephew and co-owner of the building who is running the operation, on Tuesday.

Giacobbe said the restaurant sent letters over the weekend to customers who had booked about 30 different events there for 2023, letting them know the venue would no longer be available.

The buyer is Amit Lakhotia, who has garnered considerable attention for redevelopment projects in New Britain. Bridgeport-based Primrose Companies, owned by John Guedes, has already partnered with Lakhotia and was hired to design and build the apartments.

Lakhotia Tuesday credited Guedes with introducing him to the site and to Giacobbe. He plans to break ground early next year and occupy his building by mid to late 2024. He said he was drawn to the property because of the proximity to St. Vincent, of the towns of Fairfield and Trumbull, based in Fairfield. Sacred Heart University and Westfield Trumbull Mall.

“I thought it would be attractive to millennials who don’t want to buy with rising interest rates,” Lakhotia said.

For months there has been speculation about Testo’s future.

In late 2021, Giacobbe filed preliminary paperwork with the city for an apartment or condominium complex with underground parking on the property. He and his land-use lawyer, Raymond Rizio, dismissed rumors of a pending sale in early January. Instead, they argued the paperwork needed to be submitted to circumvent height restrictions on new development that went into effect Jan. 1 as part of revised citywide zoning regulations.

Giacobbe at that time indicated that he expected Testo to operate for a few more years.

“I have two kids. One is in college. My son is going to college. I’m not going anywhere for the next six years. It’s not for sale,” Giacobbe had said in January. (But) later on, if my kids don’t want this business and I want to grow it myself or sell it, I could.”

Still, talk that Testo might shut down sooner rather than later continued throughout the year. When Giacobbe’s wife, Lilly, applied last spring and was hired as a project manager in Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration, some took it as a sign that the family was preparing to retire from the restaurant business.

But Giacobbe insisted on Tuesday that when in January he said the property was not for sale, he meant it.

“I had no intention of selling. I was still six years old,” said Giacobbe, 55. “(But) you have an opportunity, you take advantage of it. I had a good run at Bridgeport. I made a lot of good friends. I met a lot of good people over the years. Our success comes from Bridgeport and I will never deny this.”

Testa opened Testo’s 47 years ago in a different location on Federal Street, then moved to the current address of Madison Ave. in a heavily residential section of the North End about 16 years ago. In addition to hosting regular dinner parties and hosting weddings and other functions, the facility served as the unofficial headquarters of the Bridgeport Democratic Party, where members held formal and informal political meetings around a dinner and a drink.

Former mayor John Fabrizi called the restaurant “a staple” and “an institution.” He said that from a purely business perspective, Testo has filled a “void” in the banquet hall space.

“When it comes to politics, US senators, US congressmen, governors, mayors, the whole gamut has been through it for one reason or another,” Fabrizi said. “If it was to get Mario’s input and recommendation on certain issues or candidates, to hold local Democratic town committee meetings there. Republican politicians have also been there for exactly the same reasons.”

“That’s my uncle’s forte, not mine,” laughed Giacobbe.

Fabrizi said Testa, who could not be reached for comment, and the Giacobbes “put their blood, sweat and tears into this.”

The sale actually has its roots in a move the owners of the building made ten years ago.

The Madison Avenue site has also been home to restaurants since the 1930s and there were strict restrictions on what could be built on the premises. So, in the late 2000s, Testa and Giacobbe launched an effort to convince city officials to make property zoning more flexible and, in the process, more marketable.

They were successful in 2013 and Testo’s earned a general office/retail designation. There was intense opposition from neighbors who, fearing the land might possibly be used for housing or a dormitory for nearby Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, filed a lawsuit which was eventually withdrawn. .

Councilor Jeanette Herron represents the ward. On Tuesday, she called the restaurant’s impending closure “sad” and said she would be keeping a close eye on the design of the apartments.

“I just hope it… doesn’t take away from the North End vibe,” Herron said. “He has to adapt to the community.”

Another North End council representative, Michelle Lyons, said she would also miss Testo’s.

“When you have an event, you go there,” Lyons said. “Meals were good.”

She added that the opening of 177 apartments there could have a major impact on the residential area.

“That’s a lot of units,” Lyons said.

Lakhotia said he understands the concerns. He said he will provide plenty of on-site parking and amenities, the building will be well-maintained, and its tenants will help the city’s economy.

“People are always worried when something new happens,” Lakhotia said. “This new change will bring modern, modern apartments, young people living in these apartments. We’re not trying to disrupt the neighborhood. We’re just trying to bring something modern, something new. It should add value the neighborhood.”

As for what Giacobbe will do after Testo closes at the end of the year, he said: “I’m not retiring 100 per cent.”

“I’m going to look for another place next year,” he said. “I have stuff I want to do with my wife and kid, family obligations I want to take care of.”

“We have to stop and smell the roses right now,” Giacobbe said.

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