A generation ago, a good meal at the Pikes Theater meant buttered popcorn and Milk Duds. But soon, those who go to the Pikesville landmark will be able to dine on penne pasta, perciatelli and cravatti with salmon.
DiPasquale's Gourmet Italian Market of Highlandtown will open a grocery, deli and restaurant in the old theater the first week of October, bolstering efforts to turn Pikesville's commercial strip into a row of well-known restaurants.
"I think it will help the neighborhood overall by bringing people into the area," said Richard Ku, owner of Mr. Chan's Szechuan Restaurant, across the street from the Pikes.
While other communities such as Catonsville and Dundalk are hoping to find a niche that will enliven their old business districts, Pikesville has fixed upon promoting itself as a restaurant destination.
But the idea of turning the Pikes Theater into a dining attraction did not come right away.
For more than a dozen years, the 1930s-era theater at 921 Reisterstown Road stood empty.
Plans to transform the building into a post office and court building were abandoned, and a proposal to turn it into a performing arts center fell through for lack of money.
While county officials, business leaders and preservationists debated its future, the aging landmark remained dark -- its marquee hanging over a community struggling to keep business downtown.
Then in 1997, the county agreed to a plan to sell the theater to Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse for $200,000. In exchange, the developer spent $1.5 million renovating the building and leased it to DiPasquale's.
"I liked the building," said Joe DiPasquale, one of the restaurant's owners. "It had so much character. There was a lot we could play with."
The Pikes Theater is the fourth location for DiPasquale's, which Joe DiPasquale's grandfather started as a grocery in Highlandtown in 1914.
DiPasquale's at the Pikes promises to blend the art deco movie house with an Italian restaurant.
At the old theater entrance -- now an emergency exit -- stands one of the Pikes' original movie projectors. The theater's high carved ceiling is reddish-pink, and the walls are painted a dark red, but the building looks much as it did when it offered shows. The projection room upstairs will be a conference room.
On the sidewalk out front, DiPasquale plans to imitate a bit of Hollywood by putting handprints and footprints of famous chefs who are expected to give cooking demonstrations at the restaurant.
"I had a grand scheme to keep everything, but it got chiseled away by economics and practicality got in the way," DiPasquale said.
So, plans to keep the ticket booth and original movie screen had to be scrapped. A smaller screen has been put up in the back of the room and will be used to show Italian movies, DiPasquale said.
Meanwhile, the ceramic tile floor, brick oven, chairs and tables are purely Italian. In the grocery section, shoppers will be able to select from a range of sausages, cheeses, breads and pastas. A deli counter will be open for takeout.
Toward the rear, diners can enjoy a restaurant with indoor seating for 90 and outdoor seating for about 50. The menu will stress southern Italian cuisine, especially fish, veal and pasta dishes, such as the perciatelli (thick, hollow strands of pasta) and cravatti (bow-tie pasta). The business will employ more than 40 people, DiPasquale said.
"What we have done is take a building vacant for a dozen years and put it back on the tax rolls, generating jobs for the county and adding a vital addition for our restaurant row," said County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat who represents Pikesville.
Kamenetz said the restaurant row concept in Pikesville is gaining momentum. The area already features about a dozen restaurants in a half-mile area, and negotiations are in progress to put a restaurant in the town's old fire station. Kamenetz said he also is hoping a restaurant will go in a vacant property in the same block as the Pikes Theater.
"Pikesville is not going to be what it was before -- a shopping hub," Kamenetz said. "What we can have are an abundance of quality restaurants. Why not build upon what we have?"
Marketing Pikesville as a restaurant destination makes sense, said Diane Feffer Neas, a restaurant consultant who lives in Baltimore County. "A community of restaurants can help each other," she said.
Pikesville's access to the Beltway and downtown increases the chance diners will come from throughout the area, she said. "It has started to happen."
With a good economy and contributions from the state and county governments, Pikesville appears to be booming, said Nancy Garfinkel, director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. "I think we are hot right now," she said.
Even apparel and jewelry stores that had abandoned the area for the malls decades ago are coming back. A $2 million street beautification project will begin next summer, expanding a landscaping project the county did six years ago.
And work is soon to be complete on DeRisio Lane, a road that will run parallel to Reisterstown Road through the Pikesville business district to ease congestion on the main artery.
"Things are happening in Pikesville," Kamenetz said.
The owners of DiPasquale's would like things to happen a little faster.
Recently, as workers stocked the grocery shelves with pasta and cannoli shells, chef Paul Delfico said he is growing increasingly impatient waiting for opening day. He had staff to train and dishes to try.
Adding to his impatience was a series of minor glitches. Cabinets didn't fit and had to be returned. The movie screen in the rear turned out to be too small and will have to be enlarged.
"Every day I get more frustrated," said Delfico, a partner in the business.
Nearby restaurant owners are rooting for their new competitor.
"We are waiting to see when DiPasquale's opens and what effect it has," said Ken Blue, owner of Puffin's Restaurant across the street. "It's supposed to draw in people from different areas."
Said Ku, owner of the Szechuan restaurant: "Anything that will bring in business will be great."
Pub Date: 9/25/99