Lawyer: Arson victim left in debt, out of work

2 March, 1990 (~estimated)

Lawyer: Arson victim left in debt, out of work

By Patti Wiesser
Staff Writer

The American Diner’s charred remains are a parody of its once shining exterior. Gritty soot —replacing the nouvelle cuisine and embellished diner fare the Nassau Street establishment had gained a reputation for — now graces the inlaid-Formica tabletops.

The Saturday before last, waiters served the final meals out of the diner’s kitchen, and then the restaurant’s doors were locked. About 24 hours later, someone set fire to the restaurant in more than one spot in the vicinity of the kitchen yet there was no sign of forced entry, according to Mercer County Prosecutor Paul T. Koenig Jr.

As a result of the arson, more than just° the diner’s wares and employment for its 11 employees went up in smoke. The blaze also ravaged an attached 150-year-old building, destroying three other businesses and five apartments. The clump of buildings gutted by the flames are owned by Princeton University.

Princeton attorney Kim Otis, who is representing diner part-owner Nicholas Azzollini, said of the arson, “The only comment is that Nick is shocked and very distressed and is really flabbergasted and has absolutely no idea who could have done this. But he sure as hell wants to know.”

Mr. Otis confirmed that his client was underinsured — Mr. Azzollini was only covered for equipment and for an interruption to his business.

When and if anyone is charged, he or she may be facing a stiffer penalty, according one legal source, who said it is a higher degree of crime when one sets fire to a place where persons are known to be.

Owned by Princeton University. the cluster of destroyed buildings at 179 and 183 had been leased to the individual business owners. While Zorba’s Grill appeared to be damaged by only smoke, the American Cafe, which is also known as the American Diner, was ruined by the fire.

“It’s terrible. It’s really devastating,” said Nicholas Azzollini, part-owner of the cafe. “Financially, I’m ruined because I was woefully underinsured.”

He said he cut back on insurance two years ago — a year after he purchased the establishment — and only has minimal coverage.

Mr. Azzollini’s partners include David Pardo and Eddie Antar. Mr. Antar, of Crazy Eddie’s fame, is currently being. sought by federal authorities for reportedly failing to show up this week for a U.S. District Court hearing. Crazy Eddie Inc. went bankrupt but Mr. Antar has been accused of hiding $52 million in a foreign bank account.

Mr. Azzollini, the operating partner of the trio, left for California Sunday — just hours before the destructive fire ravaged his one-story upscale diner. He said Mr. Pardo was out of the country when the fire hit. “He (Mr. Pardo) doesn’t know yet. I’ve been trying to call him,” said Mr. Azzollini.

For some of those affected by the fire, news that their businesses had -gone up in smoke at the hands of an arsonist intensified their regrets. Anger was tossed into the pot of disappointment, which melded sentimental attachment with out-and-out loss of income.

“To know you’ve lost what you’ve worked for for 10 years —that just gnaws away (at you),” said Mr. Block.

Mr. Wadsworth added, “That son of a gun that set it could’ve taken some lives. I hope to God they catch the person and when they do catch him, they prosecute him to the fullest.”

The structures could be rebuilt but someone risked taking human lives with the fire, he said.

Of the five residents who lived in four units above the businesses, two were evacuated during the fire while the other three were reportedly gone. A fifth dwelling was vacant.

Danny Fikaris, who owns Zorba’s as well as the Princeton-based Danny’s Painting, expressed dismay over losing the restaurant he had spent his lifetime savings on as well as four and a half months renovating.

“I designed the place. I built it myself — everything,” said Mr. Fikaris, noting it was open “only 40-41 days.” “I feel sad everytime I look at it.”

Mr. Fikaris, who was trained as a chef in his native homeland of Greece, said he worked at Zorba’s from the crack of dawn until 11 p.m. every day.

Since the fire, he has suffered what he termed a “1,000 percent loss.”

“The financial loss is because there is no income,” said Mr. Fikaris. “At this point, you cut salt out of your destiny.”

His fledgling business was doing good, he added, and the location as well as the building were ideal.

“I don’t think I could get a better location than that,” said Mr. Fikaris, who noted he is waiting to hear what will happen to the buildings before he makes any plans.

“The whole thing comes to a stop. What happens now?” he queried, later adding. “Everybody has a dream … now they (my dreams) are on hold.”

While the .restaurateur will be saying goodbye to a few employees because of the grill’s demise, Mr. Wadsworth has bid farewell to people who seemed like relatives. “Right now, it’s so hard for me. Now they (the bakery’s workers) have to go and collect unemployment,” said Mr. Wadsworth. “I never called my people employees — they were part of my family. It’s heartbreaking to have to let these people go.”

As far as insurance goes, most of the fire victims probably won’t face any delays in collecting money guaranteed through their policies. Insurance specialist Raymond L. Messier said claims adjusters have said insurance money is not paid to someone only if the company has some reason to believe the party had something to do with destroying his property.

It is against public policy to let someone have the proceeds from something that was caused by criminal activity, he explained. While the victims of the fire assess their employee and financial losses, the borough engineer and construction officials have been determining what structural integrity is left in the charred buildings. Princeton University communications director Justin Harmon said the report shOuld be finished in a few days and the university will then be able to determine what to do with the site.

“The engineering questions are complex,” noted Mr. Harmon. Meanwhile, the university has secured the buildings with plywood, barricades and around-the-clock patrols.

And optimism about reopening the popular establishments varies from proprietor to proprietor of the gutted strip of businesses.

“I don’t think that place (American Cafe) can be resurrected,” said Mr. Azzollini. “Myself, right now, I’ve got to get a job.”

The other three businessmen victimized by the fire, however. said they remain encouraged by outward community support and confident about reopening their doors in the face of adversity.

“We are still holding firm to the fact that that would still be rehabilitated in rather short order.” said Mr. Block of 179 Nassau St.

Mr. Fikaris added, “I will be the happiest man if I go back to that place tomorrow. I never give up —I always pick up my pieces and go.”

Mr. Wadsworth, who continues to operate ,the Flower Market, added, “A lot of the punches were taken out of us but I’m going to get my punch back. We’ll make it … I’ll never give up … I’ll rebuild if I can.”

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