Bridgeport landmark restaurant Testo's sold to developer

Photo of Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — If the walls at Testo's could talk, they would have far more to share than recipes for red sauce, meatballs, linguine with clams and filet mignon in a cognac gravy.

Democratic Town Chairman Mario Testa's well-known restaurant and banquet facility has for years been where Bridgeport's movers and shakers, and political insiders from around Connecticut schmoozed and cut the deals that, for better or worse, shaped the city's and state's government and its policies.

Soon, however, Testo's, located at 1775 Madison Ave. in the North End, will be gone and replaced with a four-story, 177-unit market-rate apartment complex. 

"It's sold. It's a done deal. December 31 is the last day,"  Ralph Giacobbe, Testa's nephew and the building's co-owner who has been running the operation, confirmed Tuesday.

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

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

Lakhotia Tuesday credited Guedes for introducing him to the site and to Giacobbe. He plans to break ground early next year and have his building occupied by mid-to-late 2024. He said he was attracted to the property because of the proximity to St. Vincent's Medical Center, the towns of Fairfield and Trumbull, Fairfield-based Sacred Heart University and the Westfield Trumbull mall. 

"I thought it will be attractive to millennials who do not want to buy with interest rates going up," Lakhotia said.

For months there has been speculation about the future of Testo's.

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 attorney, Raymond Rizio, in early January dismissed rumors of a pending sale. They instead argued the paperwork had to be submitted to get around height restrictions on new developments that took effect Jan. 1 as part of revised city-wide zoning regulations.

Giacobbe at that time indicated he expected Testo's to be running for a few more years.

“I have two kids. One’s in grad school. My son starts college. I’m not going anywhere for the next six years. It’s not for sale,” Giacobbe had said in January. “(But) down the road if my kids don’t want this business and I do want to develop it on my own or sell it, I could.”

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

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

"I had no intentions of selling. I did have six more years," Giacobbe, 55, said. "(But) you get an opportunity, you capitalize on it. I had a good run in Bridgeport. Made a lot of good friends. Met a lot of good people throughout the years. Our success is from Bridgeport and I'll never deny that."

Testa opened Testo’s 47 years ago at a different location on Federal Street, then moved to the current Madison Ave. address in a heavily residential section of the North End about 16 years ago. Besides catering to regular diners and hosting weddings and other functions, the facility has been the unofficial headquarters of Bridgeport’s Democratic Party, where members have held formal and informal political huddles over dinner and drinks.

Former Mayor John Fabrizi called the restaurant "a staple" and "an institution." He said from a purely business perspective, Testo's filled a "void" in the area for banquet halls.

"As far as politics go, U.S. senators, U.S. congressman, governors, mayors, the whole gamut has been through there for one reason or another," Fabrizi said. "If it was to get Mario's input and recommendation on certain issues or certain candidates, to holding local Democratic Town Committee meetings there. Republican politicians have been through there as well for the exact same reasons."

"That’s my uncle's forte, not mine," Giacobbe laughed.

Fabrizi said Testa, who could not be reached for comment, and the Giacobbes "put their blood, sweat and tears into that business."

The sale actually has its roots in a move the building's owners made a decade ago.

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

They succeeded in 2013 and Testo’s was granted an office/general retail designation. There was some intense opposition from neighbors who, fearing the land would eventually be used for housing or a dormitory for the nearby Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, filed a lawsuit that was eventually withdrawn.

City Councilwoman Jeanette Herron represents the neighborhood. On Tuesday she called the restaurant's pending closure "sad" and said she will be watching closely to see how the apartments are designed.

"I'm just hoping it ... doesn't take the ambiance of the North End away," Herron said. "It has to fit the community."

Another North End council representative, Michelle Lyons, said she too will miss Testo's.

"When you have an event, you go there," Lyons said. "The meals were good." 

She added opening 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 be offering plenty of on-site parking and amenities, the building will be well-kept and his tenants will help the city's economy.

"People are always worried when something new comes up," Lakhotia said. "This new change will bring modern apartments, modern, young people living in these apartments. We're not trying to disrupt the neighborhood. We're just trying to bring something modern, something new. This should add value to the neighborhood."

As for what Giacobbe will do after Testo's goes dark at  year's end, he said, "I'm not retiring 100 percent."

"I am gonna look for another location next year," he said. "I've got some stuff I want to do with my wife and kid, family obligations I want to tend to."

"We need to stop and smell the roses right now," Giacobbe said.