"Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola is a big shot — and not just in the film world. As a vintner and restaurateur, Coppola apparently sees himself as the capo di tutti capi — the boss of all bosses — who owns the Italian dictionary. Last year, Coppola won a U.S. trademark for the phrase "a tavola" — Italian for "to the table" (or, in American English, "come and get it"). It seems the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also thinks Coppola owns a piece of the Italian language.
Last week, Coppola filed a lawsuit against the Tavola Italian Kitchen in Novato, Calif., on the grounds that the restaurant's use of the Italian word for table constitutes "trademark infringement, unfair competition" and false advertising, among other misdeeds.
"This has all come as a big shock to us," Tavola Italian Kitchen co-owner Jon Paul Pirraglia told me. "Tavola" is "a generic word" in Italian dining. Trademarking "tavola" is "like trying to trademark 'alfresco.'"
The lawsuit might make sense if one of Coppola's restaurants were named Tavola. None is. His Geyserville, Calif., restaurant is named Rustic; his San Francisco eatery is Cafe Zoetrope. "A tavola," Rustic's website explains, is the eating style used there on Tuesday nights. "Instead of ordering from menus, the chef prepares a variety of dishes and sends them to your table," its website explains. "It's a great way to enjoy a meal and a lot of fun for the whole family."
Lucky for Coppola, no one (else) has a trademark on "fun for the whole family."
The Coppola Family Trust's attorney refused to comment on the case. Likewise, Coppola's press person would not talk on the record.
From reading lawsuit documents, however, I see the nub of Coppola's case: Might makes right.
In 2008, Coppola applied for a U.S. trademark on "a tavola." It was granted in 2011. When the Pirraglia family's Connecticut-based business — which operates three other restaurants — applied for a trademark for "Tavola Italian Kitchen," the Patent and Trademark Office initially turned down Tavola, citing a "likelihood of confusion" in light of the Coppola family's claim to the word "tavola." The Coppola complaint then charged that the Pirraglias willfully set out to confuse consumers by luring unsuspecting bon vivants tooling up the 101 freeway toward the wine country.
There's no way, the Pirraglias told me over the phone, that customers would think they are a Coppola production. The Pirraglias are proud of their Italian-only wine list and their handcrafted meals. Still, padrone Anthony Pirraglia explained, "we're a small restaurant in a Safeway shopping center."
If the Pirraglia family business had checked into a trademark, Fenwick and West trademark attorney Sally Abel told me, it would have found "three different companies with 'tavola'-based marks with similar services." Abel also told me that in order for a term to be protectable, "it has to be distinctive."
It turns out that despite all the hype about providing an authentic Italian family dining experience, Rustic's legal claim on "tavola" as a trademark is based on a Portuguese translation of the word.
Some might argue that this is a typical food fight in the cutthroat restaurant world. Or, to quote from "The Godfather'': "It's nothing personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."
Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected] To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.