Downtown Clearwater is becoming more Italian. A little more Greek, too. Four restaurants are either opening or moving to more spacious digs. That includes two Italian places, a Greek deli and an organic food and wine bar. They're making use of city grants to upgrade their buildings as Clearwater tries to transform its downtown into a gathering place.
CLEARWATER — Tony and Jimmy Starova had no idea what to expect when they opened a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on Cleveland Street five years ago.
"We didn't know anything about downtown Clearwater," Tony recalls.
The brothers, Albanian immigrants, had owned a pizza place in New Jersey but moved on because they couldn't afford houses there. Once they opened their doors in Clearwater, they barely survived an 18-month city streetscaping project that scared away customers. After that, Tony's Pizzeria & Ristorante built a loyal following.
Now Tony's is migrating a block westward to 426 and 428 Cleveland, across from the downtown Starbucks. By doubling their space and moving closer to the Capitol Theatre and its variety of shows, the brothers hope to attract more of a dinner crowd. They intend to open next week.
"We're moving from 60 seats to 150 seats," Jimmy Starova said. "We'll have a full bar. And we'll have parking in the back, with an entrance back there."
It's a family business. Both brothers and their wives work there, serving up pizza slices and pasta dishes.
They'll have some familiar neighbors at their new location.
Since 2005, Tony's has been across the street from Peter Gillham's Nutrition Center in the 500 block of Cleveland.
Now Peter Gillham's is also moving a block to the west. In fact, it'll be next door to the new Tony's.
Its current location sells vitamins, nutritional supplements, gluten-free foods, organic products, smoothies and works by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
At the new location, the business will more than double its space. Changing its name to Gillham's Naturals, it will open in mid-November with an organic food and wine bar and an expanded grocery section.
"We're looking at later hours, bringing a little more life downtown," said executive director Shelley Jaffe. "We're going to get as much of our produce as we can from local farmers. The menu will change with the seasons."
Both businesses got $50,000 grants from the city through its Community Redevelopment Agency to renovate the interiors of their new locations. Each grant is structured as a five-year forgivable loan. If the business closes during those five years, it must repay the outstanding balance.
The city's long-term goal is to make its Cleveland Street District a destination where people will socialize, shop and dine at sidewalk cafes.
"We're targeting sit-down restaurants that are open for lunch and dinner," said Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's economic development director. "Tony's, Peter Gillham's and Casanova all have existing clientele that are familiar with them, so they'll continue to patronize them."
So, while the 500 block of Cleveland Street is emptying out, the 400 block around the Capitol Theatre is filling up.
"The 400 block on the odd side of the street is completely filled, and now you're starting to see that on the even side of the street," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
He predicted that when the Harborview Center is eventually demolished, the former AmSouth Bank high-rise at 400 Cleveland St. will become a more prominent building because it will have water views to the west.
"Things are starting to happen," he said. "There are a couple of other restaurants that are close to signing."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.