Pietro Priola was beaming yesterday as he welcomed customers into his little Italian grocery shop on Market Space and urged them to take home some fresh pasta and his personal marinara sauce.
He already was gearing up to cook even larger vats of his special sauces when expands into the grocery store in the fall with the blessing of the Annapolis city council.
"We're very happy," Mr. Priola said of the council's unanimous vote Monday night to back the expansion of the restaurant next door that is run by his mother, Maria Priola.
Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and the eight aldermen emphasized their commitment to downtown development as they endorsed the popular restaurant's application to nearly double in size.
"Maria's is significantly different from a vast majority of food establishments," said Alderman John Hammond, a Republican who represents the historic district. He agreed with other council members, who praised the restaurant as one of the few 'f family-run businesses left amid the chain stores lining the downtown streets.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Priola hugged several customers who showed up for the vote. Her proposal to expand her restaurant into the adjacent two-story building touched off an emotional debate over the future of the downtown business district.
Faithful customers and even competitors heartily supported the Priolas' plans to increase he number of seats from 77 to 149. Customers who testified on behalf of the restaurant two weeks ago praised the food and hospitality but decried the long wait for tables.
Yet some downtown residents worried that the carefully preserved historic district would turn into a boardwalk or food court with "wall-to-wall restaurants." They said they were fond of Maria's, but objected on principle to centering the city's economy on tourism and restaurant business.
And the Ward One Residents Association, which opposed the expansion, was sharply criticized by business leaders and some council members for trying to put the brakes on development at a time when the city's economy appears troubled.
Empty storefronts and offices are increasingly common on Main Street as businesses struggle through the recession. City leaders are worried that the problems will worsen if the Circuit Court moves from its spot on Church Circle, a move that state and county officials are considering.
Ms. Priola and her son plan to continue running the Italian grocery store in the next-door building, empty since a toy store moved to Main Street, until the expansion, scheduled for late October or November.