Bill Cosby returns to Philly for a meal, says 'we're ready' for retrial

What was the man once known as “America’s Dad” craving for one of his first dinners out in his hometown since his sexual assault trial last summer ended in deadlock?

Italian, it turns out.

Bill Cosby dined Wednesday at Old City’s Ristorante La Veranda with an old friend — and a crew of publicists, reporters, and cameramen invited to document the moment.

It was a decidedly odd affair.

Reporters were tipped off to the dinner plans of the 80-year-old entertainer. Cameramen greeted him at the curb and one of his party recorded him with a cellphone camera at the table.

Cosby told jokes over an entrée of penne and sausage in the largely empty dining room. He reminisced with his dinner companions — a childhood friend and a few publicists — about growing up at 10th and Parrish Streets, and welcomed other diners to stop by to snap selfies. But while reporters hovered awkwardly at a table nearby, the topic that drew them there remained largely off the menu.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Bill Cosby (second from left) and his entourage pass other diners as he arrives for dinner at Ristorante La Veranda. With him were spokesman Andrew Wyatt (left); Ebonee Benson (center) of Purpose PR; Antoinette Gregorio, a friend from Los Angeles; and Ed Ford, a childhood friend.

How are you feeling about your April retrial for the alleged assault of Andrea Constand? one reporter finally asked him after the meal. “We’re ready,” Cosby responded as he ducked into a waiting car.

La Veranda – a pricey pier-front eatery where waiters scurry past windows offering expansive views of the Delaware River and the Ben Franklin Bridge – is no stranger to a celebrity clientele. Or, for that matter, diners facing a brush with the law after their bruschetta.

It was a favorite of ex-Philly Mafia boss John Stanfa until gunmen burst into the dining room in 1992 in an infamous botched hit on a mob associate, who was working there as a pizza maker.

Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo also used to hold court at the restaurant — until a court of another sort sent him to prison for raiding a civic group’s funds.

Andrew Wyatt, Cosby’s spokesman, who welcomed reporters at Cosby’s table Wednesday, described La Veranda as one of his boss’ favorites, even since the entertainer relocated to Massachusetts.

“He had a taste for some Italian food, so we decided to fly down to Philadelphia,” Wyatt said.

Cosby himself said he first dined there years ago with former Temple University President Peter Liacouras.  He came Wednesday with Ed Ford, the childhood friend, who also attended his trial last summer.

“The feel of this city at this time for me with the snow … you know, it’s just a great, good, crisp feel,” Cosby said. Asked if he had other plans in Philadelphia this week, he quipped to reporters, “Yes. And you can’t come.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Bill Cosby has dinner with childhood friend Ed Ford (right)

It was the first time that Cosby had been seen in public in his old Pennsylvania stomping grounds since his last court hearing in Norristown in August.

Then, he and his new legal team, led by celebrity lawyer Tom Mesereau, agreed to an April 2 trial date for the entertainer’s second attempt to fend off charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted Constand at his Cheltenham home in 2004.

A jury in June failed to reach a verdict on the former Temple University women’s basketball employee’s allegations, prompting Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill to declare a mistrial and Cosby’s supporters to declare victory.

Cosby and Constand have largely dodged the limelight since then.

But it wasn’t too bright on Wednesday. At La Veranda, one table of diners stopped by to chat, and another fan recalled how much he enjoyed listening to the comedian’s records — “You never went dirty,” he said appreciatively.

Still, others in the restaurant seemed not to notice him — or not to care. As at the two-week trial in Norristown, Cosby used a cane and let his spokesman lead him into the building, and at least once had trouble focusing on a photograph shown to him. Still, he seemed upbeat, at least more so than during some of the long days he sat stoically in the courtroom.

And while little has changed on the legal front since his trial, the cultural landscape has shifted dramatically.

Allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct have brought down powerful Hollywood icons like Harvey Weinstein and media figures like Bill O’Reilly and Matt Lauer, while forcing a wider reckoning with the entertainment industry’s casting couch culture.

Dozens of women have come forward to accuse other celebrities of years-old abuse, igniting a wider public discussion of the reasons victims might delay for years before attacks by powerful men.

Constand — among the first of Cosby’s more than 50 accusers — might have been an icon for this wider cultural moment. But bound by a confidentiality agreement she signed in 2006 as part of a civil settlement with the entertainer, she has contented herself largely to cheering on the #MeToo movement with cryptic notes of encouragement from her Twitter account.

A Cosby spokesman, meanwhile, said back in June that the entertainer hoped to schedule a town hall tour to counsel young men on how to avoid false assault allegations — a claim Cosby himself later dismissed as “propaganda.”

As he noshed on pasta Wednesday, Cosby’s legal problems appeared far from his mind, until he shook a reporter’s hand — and made a request.

“Please,” he said, “don’t put me on MeToo.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Bill Cosby pauses to talk to reporters as he leaves after dinner.