SOUTH PASADENA — Forty-five years after it opened and four years after a neighboring Publix moved away, the original Gigi's Italian Restaurant in South Pasadena is closing its doors.
The restaurant at 6852 Gulfport Blvd., known for its family atmosphere and 1960s decor, is scheduled to serve its last piece of thin, crispy pizza Saturday. Three other locations in the small family chain — in St. Petersburg, Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach — will remain open.
"There used to be a line of stores wanting to get into that shopping center," said Vergil Newberne, 81, who opened that first Gigi's in 1967 with his wife, Dot. "Now it's three-fourths empty."
Employees at nearby stores in the largely vacant South Pasadena Shopping Center mourned the loss, but were optimistic about rumors that a Walmart may open in the old Publix location.
"Once that anchor is established, the other (empty) spaces will fill up," said Philip D'Elia, who owns Pasadena Jewelers. "There hasn't been an official announcement but it sounds like it's a 90 percent chance it's going to happen."
Employees at other stores said work has begun in the gutted 41,000-square-foot Publix left behind when it moved across the street. They also reported seeing Walmart security guards on the property.
Ben McLeish, a Colliers International broker who manages the shopping center, said he expects to make a formal announcement on a new tenant "in the next few months or sooner."
Newberne said he learned the food and business from an Italian chef while working at an Atlanta restaurant named Gigi's in the early '60s.
Though customers raved about the Italian specialties and seafood, he believes the key to their success was the quality service.
"Our main objective when you walk in that front door is to treat you like a king and queen. That has always been my theory. The harder you work the luckier you get," he said.
After building the business, he handed the reins over to his son and daughter in the 1980s. Even though the signature food — down to the bowl of free Super Bubble next to the cash register — is still available at three other locations, fans lamented the end of the original Gigi's.
"I grew up in Pennsylvania and it was a lot like the family-owned Italian restaurants in the suburbs of Philadelphia," said Lisa Brody, pointing to the wood paneling and subdued lighting. "It has that homey feeling, how it looks and how they treat you that you don't get at a lot at the larger chains."
Longtime customer Paula Adams was in the same class with Newberne's daughter at Boca Ciega High School.
"Gigi's was our Friday night after-the-football-game place to go," she said. "We'd sit at tables near each other or shove them together. We'd probably stay there until midnight."
D'Elia, now 58, was 14 when his father opened Pasadena Jewelers next to Gigi's.
"Gigi's and I, we kind of grew up together," he said. "We're going to miss them. That's for sure."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]