Rose De Santis has a simple question: What's a good Italian meal without a glass of fine Italian wine?
The Los Angeles Police Department has a simple answer: A good Italian meal in a not-so-fine Wilmington neighborhood.
De Santis, a native of Italy and a former cruise ship stewardess, has converted an Anaheim Street dress shop in Wilmington that was scheduled to open next week as an elegant Italian restaurant. Squeezed between a furniture store and an auto parts shop in what police describe as a high-crime area, Ristorante De Santis has what no other Wilmington restaurant has: crystal chandeliers, fine china, silver-plated cutlery, crystal stemware, $15 entrees, fresh-cut flowers and waiters in tuxedos.
'Nothing Like It Here'
"We have nothing like it here," said Aileen Wylie, owner of Hal Manufacturing, a pin and medallion business in Wilmington. "When I take a customer to lunch, we have to go to Torrance, San Pedro or Long Beach. Wilmington needs a place like this."
But Ristorante De Santis may never open, De Santis said this week. The LAPD Harbor Division has protested the restaurant's application for a state beer and wine license, and De Santis said she didn't know if an exclusive Italian restaurant could survive without an offering of fine wines.
"Wilmington is finally getting something nice, and here comes the police to tear me down," said De Santis, who recently closed an Italian restaurant in La Jolla because of high rents in that affluent San Diego suburb. De Santis said she moved her business to Wilmington because she already owned the property, which also includes a small house where she plans to live.
"I am not running a bar," she said. "I am talking about a nice restaurant."
Police agree that De Santis' operation is a class act, but Harbor Division Patrol Capt. David Gascon said De Santis and her restaurant are not the issue. The Police Department, he said, is opposed to any new licenses for alcoholic beverages in Wilmington, including so-called on-sale licenses, those that allow the sale of alcohol in restaurants and bars.
'Enough Is Enough'
"It is one of those deals where we are inundated with licenses in that particular area," Gascon said. "We say that enough is enough."
Vice Sgt. James Allen said the department protests licenses in neighborhoods where crime is more than 20% above the average for the city of Los Angeles. The West Anaheim Street area, like most of Wilmington, falls within that category, he said.
"We have problems with numerous on-sale locations in the Wilmington area, and we don't want to create another problem for our patrol officers by adding another location," Allen said. "It is our experience that people who frequent on-sale locations are becoming suspects or victims in quite a number of crimes."
Formula Allows Nine
Shelly Gartner, licensing supervisor for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said the department allows one on-sale license for every 838 people living in Los Angeles County. The licenses are divided among census tracts, she said. According to the formula, nine licenses are allowed in the area that includes West Anaheim Street. There are already 11 there, she said.
Gartner said the department issues additional licenses if applicants can prove that the business provides a "public convenience or necessity" and local law-enforcement agencies don't object. She said the department is still investigating De Santis' application, a process that could take several months.
"Normally, if it does in fact look like there is a problem with the area, naturally we don't want to add to crime in the vicinity," Gartner said. "But there have been occasions where they can prove public necessity."
But even if the department sides with De Santis, it could be six months to a year before the restaurant would receive its license, Gartner said. Because of the police protest, the law requires that the application be considered by an administrative judge. State officials report a six- to eight-month backlog on cases, and the state does not issue temporary licenses to applicants waiting for a hearing.
De Santis, who had planned to open next week, said she fears the delay could ruin her business. She said she has invested $80,000 in renovating the former dress shop and tearing down an adjacent building for parking.
"Everyone asks me why I would take a step down and move to Wilmington," De Santis said. "But there are those in Wilmington who appreciate this kind of business. Not one resident has protested the license. Only the police."
Lois Denzin, executive director of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said the organization will try to persuade the Police Department to drop its protest and agree to the license if conditions are placed on De Santis' operation that regulate the hours of operation and the advertising of alcohol at the business.
"The police did just exactly what they had to do," Denzin said. "It is an automatic thing that they do when an area is saturated with licenses. . . . We have such a saturation of these little taverns. But this lady doesn't even have a bar. She cooks with wine and she serves her food with wine. Connoisseurs and epicureans know about this. They expect to be able to order wine with such fine food."
De Santis, eager to open her business, said she is considering non-alcoholic wine and beer as a temporary solution.
"At this point, I need to do something because I invested so much money here," she said. "The people in Wilmington want a restaurant, I want a restaurant, and this is the only thing I know how to do. But what's fine-dining Italian food without a glass of wine?"