THE SIZZLING steak grill where Rick Olivieri stands at the moment, vigorously scraping onions, will be silenced in a few months.

Olivieri settled his court battle this week and will close Rick's Philly Steaks at the Reading Terminal Market, after a quarter of a century, in October.

But court documents in his battle against market management, which failed to renew his lease, raise troubling questions about the cheesesteak controversy.

They suggest the public and - more egregiously - the board of the nonprofit market may have been misled about the reasons for ousting Olivieri.

If so, an injustice has been done that demands investigation.

Management gave the clear impression that Olivieri balked at signing a new lease because he objected to a change in terms.

"The tenant has indicated an unwillingness to accept the terms of the new leases being accepted by other tenants," general manager Paul Steinke said, for example, in a memo urging the board to terminate Olivieri's lease.

Management also suggested that Tony Luke, another iconic sandwich merchant, would come on board to replace him.

But neither representation was accurate, according to court documents and sources familiar with sealed depositions.

While Olivieri did object to longer operating hours, gross-sales reporting and other terms of the new leases, he didn't refuse to sign.

Other merchants also objected to the new terms, but they weren't ousted from the market.

And Anthony Lucidonio Jr. - Tony Luke - testified during his deposition that he hadn't negotiated a lease with market management.

Lucidonio did have conversations about opening at the market with Andrew Cosenza, a friend of market-board Chairman Ricardo Dunston.

Cosenza, who has six food concessions at the Philadelphia airport, met with Luke and later engaged his own lawyer to handle the proceedings between Luke and the market.

The possibility that Cosenza would be involved in some way in Luke's operation evolved during their talks, according to Cosenza's deposition.

It isn't clear that the board knew about that, either.

The possibility that a friend of Dunston's potentially stood to gain from the ouster of Rick's Steaks has a smell about it as familiar as fried onions.

"If the reach of cronyism extends all the way down to a single stall at the Reading Terminal Market, there is a long way to go to root out its corrupting influence," said a prominent Olivieri supporter familiar with the court record.

Olivieri remains convinced he was a victim of retaliation for his aggressive representation of the concerns of fellow vendors as head of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants Association.

Not so, said Kevin Feeley, spokesman for Dunston, who defended the board's decision and blamed Olivieri for the damaging controversy.

When Olivieri continued to object to the terms of the new lease after management believed the issues were resolved, "the board came to the conclusion that enough's enough."

The lease terms were "critically important to the market's future," Feeley said.

As for the public spectacle?

"He orchestrated it," he said of Olivieri. "That was his strategy."

Feeley said the loss of Rick's Philly Steaks won't damage the market.

"The market is the attraction and everything that's in the market is part of that. We believe

we'll be able to do better," he said. It's hard to see how.

Dozens of people stood in line to order yesterday afternoon, the tables were filled, customers spilled onto seats at other counters and cameras flashed as tourists took photos of the famous neon sign.

"You see this line? It's always like this," said Maggie Torres, who works at the federal building and eats at Rick's regularly.

Yesterday, she brought Otilia Iancu, a Romanian-born friend and student at the University of Arkansas, for her first cheesesteak. Iancu snapped a photo of Rick's sign while Torres criticized market management. Terminating his lease is "the wrong thing to do" she said.

"How can it be the best thing for the market when they're throwing this guy out?" *

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