A gangland dispute is believed to have sparked a series of late-night drive-by shootings against the popular Woodstock pizza chain in Melbourne's inner north on Wednesday.
Bullets were sprayed into three eateries owned by local restaurateurs the Cannata family, including the prominent Lygon Street outlet that is a frequent haunt for underworld figures Mick Gatto and Tony and John Khoury.
Police are searching for a silver dual-cab ute that was seen near one of the restaurants.
A bullet-riddled Woodstock on Lygon Street, East Brunswick. Photo: Channel Nine
CCTV footage shows the ute driving down Reid Street in North Fitzroy just after 11pm, before doing a U-turn and driving back in the opposite direction.
Several sources say Tony Khoury is a silent partner in Woodstock Pizzicheria in Brunswick East, which is believed to have been embroiled in a turf dispute with a rival pizza chain that planned to open nearby last year.
John Khoury said the only connection his family had with Woodstock was as customers. "It has nothing to do with me or my family. Everyone thinks we're involved but we're not. I'll tell you one rumour I heard though, they don't put pineapple on their pizza."
Police are seeking more information about this silver ute. Photo: Channel Seven
Tony Khoury, who could not be reached for comment, lives a short distance away from the Lygon Street restaurant. The Tax Office froze Mr Khoury's assets last year over $4 million of unexplained income.
Mr Gatto has also denied any involvement with the Cannata family restaurant business. "I've got nothing to do with it. I don't even eat there because they won't put pineapple on their pizzas," he said.
Mr Gatto's favourite pizza is believed to be a Calabrese with pineapple, reflecting his Italian-Australian heritage. Melbourne's most persuasive debt collector has good reason to be wary of pizza restaurants after he shot and killed hitman Andrew "Benji" Veniamin in self-defence in La Porcella restaurant in Carlton in 2004.
Police assess the site of an apparent drive-by shooting. Photo: Chris Vedelago
Pizza maker Tony Cannata was crowned overall champion pizzaiolo at the 2013 Australian Pizza Championships. Mr Cannata reportedly refuses to put pineapple on his pizzas, calling it a "swear word".
The shooting started around 11pm, just minutes after two of the restaurants had closed for business. Woodstock Cucina was hit first, with six bullets sprayed into the side windows of the building on the corner of Nicholson and Reid streets in North Fitzroy.
Matthew Denman, who owns the Neighbourhood Wine Bar above Woodstock Cucina, said he heard a “loud bang” about 11pm, but did not see the shooter.
Six shots were fired at the Woodstock Cucina on Nicholson Street, North Fitzroy.
Shortly afterwards, Woodstock Pizzicheria on Lygon Street came under fire.
About half an hour later, police responded to a call about shots fired into a vacant building in Napier Street, Essendon, where the Cannata family is planning to open their newest outlet. At least two bullets travelled through both sides of the Essendon premises, and one glass panel was destroyed.
No injuries were reported at any of the scenes.
Damage to the Essendon.restaurant. Photo: Seb Costello, Channel Nine
Police have been unable to confirm how many shots were fired into each building, how many guns were used or whether the same firearms were used in each attack.
Investigators were still analysing the damage about midday on Thursday. Inspector Adrian Dalzotto said he had not spoken to Mr Cannata but expected he would be shaken by the shootings.
"You can only imagine with what's happened overnight that it's had an effect on him. Obviously he's going to be our first call in terms of working out what's happened."
Inspector Dalzotto said he was not sure when the North Fitzroy and East Brunswick businesses had closed on Wednesday night, and whether they had been deliberately targeted when empty.
It's not the first time the Nicholson Street premises have become entangled in Melbourne's underworld, with the "Black Prince" of Lygon Street, Alphonse John Gangitano, once running an illegal casino in the rooms upstairs. Known as the Carlton Association, the club was raided and shut down by police in 1987. The Cannata family has owned the building since 1979.
Tony Cannata did not return calls. "It's just a family business, mate. Just a family business," a person associated with the restaurant said.
The shootings have not thrown staff off their game at Woodstock's North Fitzroy restaurant. There appeared to be no damage to the interior of the business, and outer glass riddled with bullets had been replaced by Thursday night.
Mr Cannata arrived just before 7pm and agreed with some of his regulars that the attacks were "just another chapter in the story".
Other locals said they had come in to show their support. Pizzas remained the popular choice, and, as expected, there was no pineapple in sight.
No arrests have been made and police are appealing for witnesses.
Anyone with any information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or visit www.crimestoppers.com.au