'Restaurant''s Rocco Turns Up the Heat

04/06/2004 2:49PM

Last year's reality-show flavor of the season, NBC's "The Restaurant" star Rocco DiSpirito, is finding himself with a bitter aftertaste these days, thanks to a civil lawsuit filed against him by his business partners over his Rocco's restaurant.

Though the China Grill Management R.I.A. and China Grill Management L.L.C. sued the celebrity chef this past February -- alleging that he failed to make his namesake Manhattan eatery a success because he was too busy turning himself into a TV star -- DiSpirito finally responded this week with his own counterclaims, reports The New York Times.

Among DiSpirito's allegations: his partners changed the locks on Rocco's and didn't give him a key, his 79-year-old meatball-making mama was slow to receive her salary, and Rocco's fresh pasta was sneakily changed to frozen.

In his suit, filed in Manhattan's State Supreme Court, DiSpirito, 37, also claims in his $6-million breach-of-contract action that his partners profited from his fame but squeezed him out of his 50 percent interest in Rocco's, which opened in June 2003. The partners' actions, DiSpirito claims, resulted in "almost a full year of unpaid time, skill and effort, the outlay of substantial out-of-pocket costs, lost opportunities and incredible emotional strain."

Besides the money, DiSpirito is seeking to regain control of the famous restaurant that bears his name. Calls to China Grill Management by The Times reportedly went unanswered.

All the controversy could make for good television. NBC is due to start dishing out the second season of "The Restaurant" on April 19, six months after the initial season wrapped up.

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