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Business: Two pizza shop owners at odds over one name

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Two local pizza shops are battling over the same name.
  • Two local pizza shops are battling over the same name.

Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, was a cunning adviser, adept at counseling his patrons, the Medici family, in matters of political intrigue.

Luckily for him, though, the Medicis never owned a pizza joint. Because as a dispute between two local pizza owners shows, arguments in that business can get really tricky.

The dispute came into public view in the Nov. 13 Pennysaver, which featured advertisements for two Downtown pizza places: one for Pizza Milano, the other for Milano's Pizza & Bar. The issue also contained an insert -- a flier notifying readers that "Pizza Milano is not affiliated with a new restaurant operation known as Milano's Pizza & Bar." In fact, it added, Milano's Pizza "is wrongfully seeking to infringe upon Pizza Milano's good name and business reputation."

On Dec. 2, sitting in his Market Street restaurant after the lunch rush, Milano's Pizza & Bar co-owner Halil Atabey bemoaned the flier.

"Is this the pizza mafia?" he asked.

Atabey and two other co-owners -- each of whom formerly worked for Pizza Milano (which has two locations, one on Fifth Avenue and one on Sixth Street) -- opened their own pizzeria about two months ago. They purchased its name from Hermann Sciulli, who operated a pizza place for 35 years in Hampton Township, and later opened two other shops in Oakland and Downtown.

But Atabey's former employer says the "Pizza Milano" name is protected by federal copyright. And his attorney, Bill Merchant, says Atabey and his co-owners are "causing confusion for customers." That, Merchant says, is the reason his clients distributed the flier -- and why they filed a motion to sue Atabey's business unless it finds a new name.

Merchant suspects the competition of going even farther: Menus that Pizza Milano distributes around town have gone missing, and Merchant thinks that Atabey's pizzeria may be snatching them -- perhaps because his clients had inserted the fliers inside their menus.

"They stopped [stealing the menus] because we filed suit," Merchant says.

Atabey denies ever having seized menus. "Seven days a week I am here," he says. "Even if I wanted to [throw away their menus], I don't have time for it.

"[Pizza Milano] thinks that whatever bad happens is coming from us. It's paranoia." His former employer "is treating us like we are doing something very wrong," he says.

"Milano" is what Italians call Milan, the second-largest city in Italy. It's less strongly associated with pizza than, say, Naples. So why the bitterness?

Sciulli, who sold the name to Atabey and his partners, suspects it's personal. He points out that he opened a Downtown location three years ago ... but although Pizza Milano was "pissed off" about the similar name, he says, "They never did anything."

Atabey and his two fellow co-owners insist they parted on good terms with their former employers. "When I quit, I was very happy," says co-owner Mahmut Yilmaz, who worked as a manager at Pizza Milano's Sixth Street location for eight years.

Although a manager from Pizza Milano declined to comment for this story, Merchant maintains that the issue is all about the trademark infringement and nothing else. "My client has a federally protected name," he says.

In any case, both sides say the dispute will be resolved outside of court.

"We are not going to keep the name," says Atabey, who maintains he planned on renaming the store after establishing the business for a few months anyway. Atabey says he wanted to use the name for a few months to maintain Sciulli's loyal customer base, not steal Pizza Milano's customers.

Changing the restaurant's name, it seems, may be best for both sides. According to Lou DePaul, a trademark lawyer and Duquesne University law professor, proving either restaurant's case in the naming dispute is complicated.

On the one hand, he says, the first business to use a name -- whether or not it has a federal trademark -- "has the greater rights. ... The first person to use a name in conjunction with goods and services has the upper hand."

Then again, he says, one of the most important questions in trademark battles is: "Would people be confused that one [business] is related to the other?"

DePaul says trademark cases are typically "very complicated." It's in both parties' interests to settle the matter out of court, he says.

Still, bad feelings may be harder to resolve.

"They got nasty with this," Atabey says, holding up the flier. "They played with us, and they played with the people."

Merchant says Atabey's not the only one upset about the ordeal: "My client is angry, too."

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