The owners of Maria’s Ristorante, a fixture in Portland’s restaurant community since the 1970s, want to relocate their Cumberland Avenue restaurant because they say the behavior of transients who use the nearby social service agency is making it hard to keep customers and attract new ones.

Other restaurants in the area near Preble Street, a nonprofit that provides services to the homeless, say they also have experienced problems that range from loitering and cursing to screaming and discarded needles.

“This is a really, really serious problem we’re having with this particular part of the city,” said Portland City Manager Jon Jennings.

Tony Napolitano Jr. of Maria’s Ristorante at 337 Cumberland Ave. said his customers have been approached by panhandlers who use the center, and some have had their cars urinated on. Maria’s parking lot is directly across from Preble Street on Portland Street. Also, young people who use the agency’s nearby teen center loiter in front of the restaurant. Napolitano said his regular customers have remained loyal, but it’s been hard to attract new business.

Preble Street has provided critical aid to the homeless and hungry in the neighborhood since 1975, but Napolitano says the problems he’s seeing are worsening.

Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, said Wednesday night that he sympathizes with business owners’ concerns, but his staff can’t control the behavior of clients, who come to the agency seeking a warm meal and shelter. The demands on the shelter have increased in recent years, Swann said.

“When we opened at this location 25 years ago, the facility and the program were designed to serve about 150 people a day. Now we are serving more than 400 people a day,” he said, noting that seven Portland shelters have closed in the past 15 years.

“The opiate addiction crisis has been the tipping point for us,” Swann said. “We’ve never seen anything like this and we are scrambling to respond.”

If people come to Preble Street seeking services for problems such as mental health or substance abuse and they don’t have health insurance, there is nothing Preble Street’s staff can do to help them, Swann said.

“It’s a daily occurrence. We look at them and say we’re sorry, we can’t help. In my mind, it’s criminal,” he said.

With the nearby Preble Street center helping over 400 people a day, the owners of Maria’s Ristorante say issues with transients are worsening. Staff photo by Derek Davis

PROBLEMS AT OTHER RESTAURANTS

As for businesses such as Maria’s, Swann said he understands their concerns, but “We’re desperately trying to keep people alive, safe and fed.”

Adrian Stratton, manager of Back Bay Grill at 65 Portland St., which has been in the neighborhood for 30 years, said the situation has been “up and down” since he started working there 13 years ago. He agreed with Napolitano that there are “definitely issues we have to overcome.”

“It definitely is a challenge for us every day,” Stratton said. “I don’t want to say anything negative about the (Preble Street) resource center. I think the resource center is a great thing for the city. I do appreciate what they do, but as far as a business-friendly neighborhood? We are not located in one.”

Jennings said other businesses and neighborhoods in the city are having similar problems. He got an earful recently when he met with people who own businesses on Congress Street from about High Street down to Elm. He heard stories of aggressive transients, public urination and other bad behavior. The staff at the Maine Historical Society, he said, has reported being spat on, having “horrible things” said to them, and feeling unsafe walking to their cars.

Jennings has met with Napolitano. “He’s finding it increasingly difficult to make his restaurant work,” Jennings said. “We’ve talked specifically about how he’s had to use Groupon just to get people in the door.”

LOITERING, SCREAMING, FIGHTING

Stratton said Back Bay Grill’s chef/owner Larry Matthews Jr. has, like Maria’s, considered moving to the Old Port or Kennebunk, or opening a second restaurant in Biddeford. But the regular customers – the nostalgic ones who have spent all their anniversaries at the restaurant – say they don’t want them to move.

A few doors down at Isa Bistro, at 79 Portland St., co-owner Suzie St. Pierre said people occasionally stop by “looking for a beer and a shot somewhere, but this is not the place for that and they move on.”

She said loiterers also sometimes hang out outside the restaurant or in their parking lot, “but we just politely ask them to move along.”

Just down the street from Maria’s is Schulte & Herr, a German restaurant at 349 Cumberland Ave. Steffi Davin, who owns the restaurant with her husband, says she is tired of seeing fights break out in front of her restaurant. Lately she’s been finding more needles discarded by drug abusers, “which is kind of concerning.”

“It’s loitering, the constant screaming and cursing, police and fire trucks constantly parked right in front of my window,” she said.

Davin said the problems don’t appear to be keeping her regulars away, but she doesn’t think tourists would ever venture into the neighborhood. She said she hasn’t complained to the city, partly because she and her husband knew social services agencies were in the neighborhood when they moved in.

“What am I going to do, tell them to get rid of all the homeless, get rid of the teens?” she said. “I think that’s a bigger issue than just putting them somewhere else.”

LIMITS ON WHAT THE CITY CAN DO

Napolitano said the problems go back about 10 years, and they are getting worse. He said customers have called to say they have reservations but after driving by, they don’t want to park in his lot. “People come up to them panhandling as they’re getting out of their car,” he said.

Portland police have helped, he said, “but there’s only so much they can do.”

Napolitano said he’s been talking to the city manager’s office about the problems for about the past year and a half.

“We’re being patient with them,” he said. “We’re trying to give them a chance.”

There are limits to what the city can do, Jennings said. He suggests that businesses talk to the city’s policymakers, and noted that the city budget that went into effect this month has increased funding for community policing in Bayside and the Congress Street corridor. The city also is making infrastructure improvements, he said, such as better lighting and new sidewalks in some of these areas.

The Napolitanos are longtime Portland business owners. Anthony Napolitano Sr. and his wife, Madeline, opened their first restaurant, Napoli’s, on Veranda Street. They sold that business in 1972 and opened the first Maria’s in Westbrook. Four years later, they moved the restaurant to Portland.

The place is known for its classic Italian cuisine. The senior Napolitano is credited with being the first restaurateur to put calamari on a Portland menu.

The brick building that houses Maria’s has been for sale for a couple of years, Tony Napolitano said. He said the family has been looking at properties in the Old Port and would even consider moving to a neighborhood off the peninsula if the building can be sold.

The 8,722-square-foot building, built in 1926, is listed online for $895,000 by Malone Commercial Brokers.

MARIA’S FINDS OTHER REVENUES

Meanwhile, the family has been diversifying to keep the business going. They started a catering business on the side, and have created a line of tomato-based sauces that are sold in local grocery stores.

They’ve also tried other strategies to get diners in the door. They offer entertainment in their lounge and dinner shows with “crooners,” and they host fundraisers such as the upcoming event on July 23, “Pasta With a Purpose,” to help a 2-year-old who has leukemia.

“We’re doing well, but we could do much better,” Napolitano said.

He emphasized that the family has no intention of selling the restaurant business itself – just the property. His three daughters work in the restaurant part time and are interested in taking it over someday, he said.

Maria’s is currently closed for a family vacation, but will reopen July 22.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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