A Bicentennial Interview With The Chairman Mario Testa–“Critics? I Don’t Have Any Critics”

Mario Testa with Mayor Joe Ganim.

Will the legend of Mario Testa ever measure up to the perception of power? He’s rather bemused by it all, the diabolical marionette controlling the political and government strings of the city. The political don knows sometimes perception is mightier than reality. It moves people to places they don’t even know they are going.

He loves the action of politics that gravitate to his restaurant on Madison Avenue, epicenter of the deals, rumors, morning espresso with early morning pols. It’s also not bad for business. As Mario often says, “I’m a business man.”

Bridgeport’s Democratic town chairman the better part of three decades is driven by the “respect thing.” He’s old school that way: say hello, break bread, cut a deal here and there.

Rizzy-Mario fight photo
July 1989, Mario Testa has a nose lock on rival Mike Rizzitelli who sucker punched him during the endorsement convention for mayor. Photo by Jim Callahan, The Bridgeport Light.

Mario’s been on the radar of federal investigators for decades. They’ve come up empty. You ask him about it and he smiles with a wave of the hand. He may be a man in miniature but he’s thick-skinned and smart. Will he run for another term as chair? Knowing Mario he may just do it to torture all the haters.

Mario, 74, emigrated to the States from a town about 40 miles outside of Naples when he was just a teenager, the seventh of eight children, whose family came to America like millions of other immigrants, to seek opportunity and a better life.

A cousin of former Mayor Tom Bucci, Mario guided the political careers of mayors John Fabrizi and Joe Ganim–both before and after Ganim’s federal conviction on municipal corruption charges. He started his political career in the administration of the irrepressible John Mandanici, a former supermarket meat department manager turned hard-nosed pol. Red meat, please.

2019, Testa addresses fundraising crowd at Joseph’s Steakhouse.

Today, Mario has largely turned over his restaurant operations to family members, but OIB correspondent Bob Fredericks tracked him down at Testo’s Pizzeria (Three Corners), a popular family restaurant just over the line from Brooklawn in Fairfield, part of our ongoing conversation saluting Bridgeport’s Bicentennial.

He shared his memories, and had only a simple response when asked what he would tell his many critics who bemoan his throttle on city politics, jobs and government: “Critics? I don’t have any critics,” said Mario who is recovering from quintuple bypass surgery and taking time to smell the roses, a suggestion that prompted a hearty laugh.

Q. What is your first memory of Bridgeport?
A. My first memory of Bridgeport had to be the first blizzard I ever saw. It was in 1960; I was about 13 years old. I never saw that much snow.

Q. What are your ties to Bpt., and what do you do, either work or volunteer work, that benefits the city and its residents?
A. The restaurant business, I got involved after I got out of the service. I was in the Army from 1966 to 1968, and spent a year in Vietnam. I had some time to spare, and a cousin had a pizza place on Madison Avenue, Jerry’s. Pizza. I wasn’t even a citizen then. I learned about pizza, grinders, the cooking, the business. After I took some time off, I went to Europe for awhile, then I came back in 1972 and opened a restaurant. In 1976, I bought the place on Madison Avenue [Testo’s]. Around 1988, I turned Three Corners over to my brother Albert and opened the catering hall. Politics, I got involved when John Mandanici was mayor. I was appointed to a commission that set the mil rate and the budget. Then I became chairman of that commission. Bucci got elected, and they (voters in a charter change) turned the budget over to the City Council. Then I worked on campaigns but it wasn’t me who got people elected. Like Ganim, it wasn’t me who got him elected (after his prison term). It was the people of the city of Bridgeport.

Q. What do you like best about Bridgeport?
A. I love Bridgeport because Bridgeport’s the one that made me. I decided I owed something to Bridgeport and got involved in politics. Anyone who comes to the United States, comes to a country of opportunity. A country of opportunity, and that’s what I did. I worked 24 hours, seven days a week. You have to enjoy what you are doing, but as long as you work hard, you can go places in Bridgeport.

Q. Where is your favorite spot in the city to visit and why?
A. Seaside Park, a nice beach area, Beardsley Park. These are icons in the city of Bridgeport and the state of Connecticut. Lately, since I recuperated, I’m spending more and more free time so I visit more than I used to when I was working all the time. I’m turning over a new leaf (laughs).

Q. What’s your favorite Bridgeport eatery and what do you like there?
A. Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s Downtown, and the steakhouse, Joseph’s Steakhouse. I spend more time in restaurants in Bridgeport than I do outside of the city, and those two are my favorites, besides my restaurants.

Q. Where  do you see the city going?
A. Hopefully we can attract some new development; I’d like to see the Downtown area go up a little bit. Maybe in the near future with the [coronavirus] money we’re getting from the federal government, we can do something  with the [decrepit Palace and Majestic] theaters Downtown. When I was a state legislator I got $3 million to fix the roof, but the rest of it needs lots of work. I talked to the mayor about this, and we should do something. I started the process. That’s the main thing honestly, do something to attract the people Downtown. They also need a municipal parking lot. I would not open a business Downtown if customers can’t park their cars. Who’s going to go Downtown for lunch if you get a ticket? Or if you have to park a mile away, you’ll just go somewhere else.

Q. If you had a magic wand and could make a miracle happen for the city, what would it be?
A. Trying to get some federal money and state money. Stop treating the city like a stepchild.  We’re the largest city in state, they should pay more attention to us. You cannot have the Hartford area take all the top spots. I feel that our legislators, they’re all together trying to move up the ladder to get more seniority. [He offered no criticism of the city’s embattled delegation for failing to bring home the bacon.]

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14 comments

  1. Lennie, I think your journalism skills are slipping. You can’t jsut skip and cut off all the others, like Finch, or Councilmembers and jump to the Big Kahuna 🙂

    Lennie, you are here for promoting Bridgeport’s Bicentennial. Interviewing the Big Cheese is like setting off the grand finale at the fireworks in the middle of it show. 🙂

    Comrade Day, everyone has critics, just some more than others. I think the BBOE and the city should consider John’s idea about building a tech school. Since the city is Planning and set to rebuild a new Bassick High School they should consider making it a technical school for the Port’s students, like the magnet schools. There is no doubt it will have a greater impact on Port students.

    P.S people let’s not forget about, “If You See Cup Pick It Up” campaign.

    Billboards. 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8RkAzAX2-g

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  2. Interesting answers from a man who has had so much influence on who gets to work, how much they earn during and after employment, and how “political power” was attractive to him as a method of repaying his thought that he “owed something to Bridgeport”. Mario did not say he owed his neighbors or fellow citizens any public service. Rather he said he was enrolling in the “power structure”.

    Assuming he did study to earn his citizenship, what history or social studies did he cover when preparing himself? America is a land of opportunity, but slavery and white supremacy have been part of that story. And minority populations of people of color including immigrants make up a majority of the population. When does he speak on this subject? What are his thoughts about goals and purpose for school youth and what “political leadership” owes to those youth? Politics as practiced by many in Bridgeport is a self-serving endeavor by use of power, and keeping vote counts in elections or ballot questions low. Time will tell.

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  3. That’s Mario being Mario, he said nothing and still has the mindset of old school There’s one person on OIB who has known Mario from the time that he got to America as a teenager and who really knows Mario, LISA “HONEY” PARZIALE. I find it very strange after all of these years that not one black or Hispanic has ever given Mario a challenge and they have never form a coalition to find a candidate that they could support. Mario is not the most sociable person in dealing with social issues.

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  4. JML, to be fair, let’s not forget Italians and Southern Italians specifically were not considered to be white when they come to this country, even in their own, and the fact slavery and conquest hasn’t been solely practice by white humans. Every race has practiced it and had reigned supreme over others at one time or other, but time seems to tell it was exclusive to whites. Or the fact slavery/indentured servants was not America’s original sin but an inherited one and within 30 years outlawed the slavey trade to its newly formed country. As well as abolishing it 80 years of its formation with one of the most bloody wars American has seen.

    America is the land of opportunity, and slavery/indentured servants were/is part of it. But when you speak of white supremacy be more specific. The whites who fought and died to preserve it, or the whites who fought and died to end it? Each seemingly sought supremacy of this land.

    P.S School is out. Let’s continue this discussion in the fall and enjoy the liberties American has granted it. Sure most/if not all, Port’s people will not enjoy a day on “Lady Kathryn but I am sure they can find something enjoyable to do. 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGh6duJUYcs

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    1. RT, “Let’s be fair” you say to me. But in fairness you are comparing immigrants from different countries who came for the most part seeking such opportunities as we agree are present if sought out and labored on overcoming multiple risks and challenges. The streets were not paved with gold as discovered by the Irish, Italians, Greeks, and folks from Eastern Europe or Asia but come they did and shared their unique talents and beliefs in attempting to “trade a day’s work for a dollar”.
      The ancestors of those who came as slaves from Africa were identified “racially” by color of skin, not country of origin.. Many of the founders were slaveholders but there was always lessening tolerance in American history with slavery and that resulted in the Civil War with too many casualties on all sides. Study Reconstruction and the people who kept the Federal troops enforcing the law. White supremacists were among those who worked to eliminate the troops and who have maintained a Southern narration of history since then which has reached to this day ignoring the facts of economics, education, healthcare, among others that faced newly freed men, women and children whose skin was of color.
      White supremacists today are those who would not have us study history, all the facts and info available to us, uncomfortable to confront at times, but rather accept a narrative that is inaccurate, often hateful, and selfish to an extreme. Are we open to conversations that chew on these historic stories and consider multiple viewpoints? Will that be uncomfortable? Can it be positive for the future of our democracy? Time will tell.

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      1. But are you being fair?

        The streets of America have not paved with gold for any immigrant. As Mario stated, “as long as you work hard, you can go places in Bridgeport.” But more importantly America. What kinda place who knows, but you can have a decent life of wants,

        My fairness is more about your “White” supremacy while ignoring other races
        However, I am pleased to see the narrative has changed a bit to be more inclusive that moved away from solely “White Supremacist” to include Eastern Europeans and Asians coming to America.

        IOB was not my lonely ESL class. I took them at both HCC and NCC, and there were quite a few black immigrants as was as others from Eastern Europe. So my question, as you suggested as well as some of my teachers, which I found ironic. If America is so White supremacy and unfair to blacks or people of melanin why are so many of them, some even risking their life, willing/are coming here?

        Also, I would be careful as to arbitrary place the Irish immigrants in this land. That narrative can be skewed, inaccurate, and even misleading, as well as historical. Unless you consider England, genociding the Irish people, “twice”, Once by starvation and once by invading their land, reducing the population by 60%, killing the man, and forcing the woman on a boat from their homeland never to return, as immigrants. Our Founding Father, Slaveowner, Thomas Jefferson had nothing on those indentured “servants”.

        I believe we had a discussion on reconstruction, and as I said, “be specific on what whites in white supremacy you are referring to, as well as what party hindered the slow progression of blacks during reconstruction after the War?

        I don’t believe facts are/were ignored when it comes to economics, education, healthcare, among other things that faced newly freedmen, women, and children whose skin was of color, then or now. I do however feel what is ignored/misleading/forgotten at the times is that many poor whites suffered from those same conditions then and now. Mostly today because of Race/identity politics.

        Take Martines for city council, she is having a harder time this go around because of an incident that was not of her making, but more of her reaction, If she loses it will be based on race/identity politics, considering every time someone gets shot and goes to the hospital the victim never cooperates with the police, That’s the street code, as well as racial/identify politic, That’s the current game.

        JML, it’s not uncomfortable talking about White “Racist” Supremacist or race/racism in America. We have been doing this for quite some time, along with a lot of casualties on both sides. What is accepted as a narrative that tends to be inaccurate is its white exclusive. If a white person says white power he/she is automatic a racist or “white” supremacist. However, if a black person black power he/she is not a racist or labeled a “Black” supremacist. Is that fair in your democracy?

        P.S there is no street code for littering in your community or to keep your community clean. If You See A Cup, Pick It Up. 🙂

        As a man once told me, to know your team/side. Buongiorno/Bon Appetit

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3kcnm2THXI

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      2. P.S If White supremacists today are those who would not have us study history is the lever of white racism, well you have to ask, Wait/What?

        However, I would be wary of critical race theory. There was another radical theory marred in controversy to be taught in schools call evolution. We know how that turned out. 🙂

        Just remember Democracy, which was given by the philosophers of Ancient Greece wasn’t really a Democracy, half of Athens’s population were slaves, and the elites were able to participate in it, in order to war with each other. While others didn’t like to get too far from the brute. “It is better to learn war with ourselves and win/lose than learn war with others and lose”

        They say no one is born to be racist, it’s taught. God was taken out, patriotism, the Pledge of Allegiance, all but forgotten in schools. Some say CRT is Marxism rebranded and teaches racial resentment. You don’t own a “Lady Kathryn” Superyacht was it because of white systematic supremacy? Racial resentment is easy to conjure up, taking away one’s Bible migh be more challenging, be white, black, brown, (Laino)

        BTW. By no means am I saying there are no inequalities or racial/racism that produce needs that are not being met but teach the narrative to look at your neighbor and say his boat is bigger mine is walking a tight rope of racial resentment? Resentment/hate comes naturally in time, in the end to everyone.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTEpHeN8jhE

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  5. That was actually an excellent interview of Mario by Lennie. Don’t forget that Mario is still in the process of recovery from extensive heart surgery — and, in any event, Mario is a rather low-key person, not given to a lot of drama or verbiage (unlike most of us that follow and contribute to OIB!…).

    And Mario likes to keep things relevant and focused and tends to think pragmatically, rather than grandiosely. He’s not a typical pol. He stated his history with Bridgeport, and his likes and dislikes, simply, succinctly, and in relevant contexts.

    But his most interesting response — where he gave OIB readers something(s) upon which to speculate and serve as grist for vigorous argument, was this last question from Lennie —

    ***
    Q. If you had a magic wand and could make a miracle happen for the city, what would it be?
    A. Trying to get some federal money and state money. Stop treating the city like a stepchild. We’re the largest city in state, they should pay more attention to us. You cannot have the Hartford area take all the top spots. I feel that our legislators, they’re all together trying to move up the ladder to get more seniority. [He offered no criticism of the city’s embattled delegation for failing to bring home the bacon.]
    ***
    Here, we see the Democratic Party Chairman of the state’s largest (Democratic) city, putting our delegation and the rest of the state on notice about how things need to be done by Bridgeport and for Bridgeport… This was the pragmatic facilitator speaking to whomever might want to work with him on Bridgeport’s behalf in the context of their own ambitions…

    As a Party boss, it is inevitable that Mario has had occasion to step on some toes and create some situations where a few people might have the proverbial axe to grind with him, but, keeping the nature of his political role in Bridgeport in mind, people should not make negative assumptions about his motives or modus operandi…

    And from the way he handled his interview, it just might be possible that the process of fully regaining his health might also include the pursuit of his highest aspirations for Bridgeport via the employment of an even-more-finely-honed subtle efficiency garnered from his latest personal challenges…

    God-speed, Mario! I’ll be eager to see your latest political plans for Bridgeport unfold. We all know it will be interesting political theater and will generate some life in this struggling place.

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  6. The best part of this interview is that Mario is recovering for his health problems and is starting to slow his work schedule and enjoy life.. God bless him..

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  7. *** To hate him is to love him because no one else in the democratic party has been as successful in business, politics & over all life than Mario. To have such a large group of people from different neighborhoods, walks of life, ethnic back-grounds, etc. support you for so long & no major legal set-backs regardless of past accusations is unbelievable in itself. There’s no doubt Mario walks softly but carries a big business & political stick in Bpt. ***

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    1. Those large group of people from different neighborhoods, walks of life, ethnic back-grounds, etc. seek nothing for their group from Mario, they made no demands they just go along to get a long while they keep keep Democrats in power.

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  8. IKEA! Seniors like Mario Testa would enjoy a week at IKEA, just tell him there’s a nice man on the 5th floor making Swedish Meatballs for him. My Mother in-law was there for over a week before anyone noticed her.

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  9. *** LOSERS TEND TO HATE WINNERS, SO THEIR ALWAYS QUICK TO CRY, “WOLF” WHEN THERE REALLY IS NO “WOLF” *** SO WHEN THERE IS A “REAL-WOLF” IN BPT. NO ONE SEEMS TO BELIEVE THE CRYS ANYMORE ***

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