COLLINGSWOOD, N.J. (AP) — When he was on trial for racketeering, Angelo Lutz denied the mob's existence, but now he's using his past in organized crime to promote his new restaurant, the Kitchen Consigliere.
The sign out front echoes the logo for "The Godfather" but with a chef's hat. A mural on one wall puts Lutz, also known as Fat Ange, at a table with famous gangsters, both real (John Gotti) and fictional (Tony Soprano). Sconces to hold lights look like 9 mm handguns.
And some nights, he serves up a special he calls Joey's Pork Chops, in honor of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, the reputed Philadelphia-South Jersey mob boss. He's also happy to tell customers stories from his past.
Lutz is using some unsavory associations as he attempts a transformation from prisoner to opinionated celebrity chef.
Last week, he moved his operations from an 11-table restaurant to one three times as large on a prominent corner of the hip, foodie-friendly Philadelphia suburb of Collingswood.
"I never considered myself a gangster. I'm not a gangster. The government considered me a gangster. The government considered me a mob associate," he said. "But what I am now is a businessman."
Lutz, 49, grew up in South Philadelphia, where food was a big part of his life. According to federal prosecutors and a jury, he also did some bad along the way.
He was one of seven men convicted in a 2001 mob trial that made him a celebrity. He was the only non-"made" member of La Costa Nostra in the case and the only defendant allowed bail during the trial. And he talked and talked while he was out, calling into a sports talk radio show and cooking steaks for a TV news reporter.
The government said Lutz was a bookie and debt collector for the Mafia. Although he wasn't violent, he was sentenced to nine years in prison but later got nearly a year knocked off on appeal.
The night before he entered prison, he cooked for his own going-away party, leading one TV reporter to call him "the kitchen consigliere."
"I then served my time like a man, didn't rat, didn't snitch, you know, took the medicine that went along with when you break the law," he said from the section of his restaurant that pays tribute to Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack.
In prison, he grew to well over 400 pounds and learned more about cooking, including how to use a microwave to bake a pizza made from flour stolen from the kitchen.
When he got out in 2008, Lutz did some online cooking shows before opening his first restaurant in Collingswood.
But when it came time to move to bigger digs, there was a problem: "I couldn't get conventional bank loans because I'm a felon. I broke the law," he said, slapping his arm. "Shame on you forever, for life."
He raised nearly $100,000 for renovations from investors and crowd-funding for his restaurant, which features home-style Italian classics.
Peggy Crowell of Pennsauken said she's been a fan of the restaurant since visiting its previous location down the street.
"You really feel like you're getting grandma's Italian recipe," she said.
Crowell said Lutz's reputation had nothing to do with her patronage.
"I don't really know anything about him," she said. "I understand there's things to know. But I don't know."
Lutz has worked hard to turn his life around and go legitimate, said George Anastasia, an author and former mob reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"He believes in second chances, and this is his second chance," Anastasia said.
Lutz doesn't want to stop with his Collingswood restaurant. He has designs on opening franchises of his restaurant in other cities known for their gangsters, licensing products with his brand, starring in a reality TV show and starting a foundation to help other ex-prisoners become entrepreneurs.
"Redemption," he said. "That's what I'm all about now."