Since earlier this summer, pedestrians on Ponquogue Avenue have been diverting around a blocked section of the sidewalk, boarded up with scaffolding. Patrons of Francesca’s Pizza have been using the rear entrance for their daily fix of chicken parmigiana, garlic knots and margherita slices.
But so far nobody has complained. At least according to Mark Caltabiano, owner and operator of Francesca’s Pizza. The family-owned restaurant is undergoing a major renovation project that will reach into early spring of 2014.
Leaving only the southern wall and the building’s slab original, contractors dug out beneath the dining area to expand the basement for extra storage. Now workers are literally raising the roof, to create a 12-foot ceiling height with an entirely new facade facing out on Ponquogue Avenue.
On the interior, Francesca’s is pushing into the abandoned barber shop adjacent to the store and will be expanding its kitchen and dining areas. Electrical wiring for the eatery will be buried underground and a high-voltage generator will be installed on the roof of the building. The restaurant is upgrading its heat and air-conditioning systems as well.
But the most noticeable changes will be in the pizzeria’s overall aesthetic. Caltabiano, a native of Holbrook who graduated from Sachem High School in 1989, has been operating the eatery for the past eight years of its 25-year existence, along with his wife, Katie and his two children, Michael and Erica. He beams with pride as he greets customers heading in for a late lunch and speaks simultaneously about the overhaul of the restaurant.
“It’ll be a whole new look, a whole new storefront,” he says. “They tore it all down and they’re rebuilding it all up with a different look. It will be more welcoming for people to sit down and a nicer decor, it’ll definitely be more spacious. We will be looking to expand on our menu for catering and a better flow and function.”
The first phase, the structural portion, is expected to be completed by late September, which is when the sidewalk should open up again to foot traffic, according to John Ferguson, principal of MRJ Industries, which is handling the renovation. When that time comes passersby will see a much taller facade, with new windows, a stucco exterior and Greco-Roman columns. In the rear entrance of the pizzeria, Caltabiano intends to put a modest number of outdoor tables and chairs for the warm weather months.
Then the project moves inside to expand the space and spruce up the ambience.
The larger kitchen will also shorten wait-times, according to Caltabiano, as the pizzeria will go from one six-burner stove to two, and will include an additional deep fryer, a char-broiler and a grill for more diverse menu options.
“We don’t have enough oven capacity for pizzas [currently],” he says. “Under the load and volume, we can’t really get the orders out. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half for pizza. Sometimes the longest wait has been up to two hours. And it’s amazing that people actually wait that long, but you also wind up turning business away because people can not wait.”
That second, interior, phase will begin sometime around the holiday season and continue into the spring. For design help, Caltabiano said he turned to Michael Starr, an interior design consultant who operates Starr Restaurant Design, Inc. One new interior feature: a 305-gallon custom-made saltwater aquarium, which will be located at the front.
All told, the renovation will cost somewhere in the high six-figures, according to Caltabiano, who said the building’s age has unearthed some unexpected surprises along the way. The investment not only used local labor (Ferguson is a regular at Francesca’s and his wife, Michelle, is a school teacher at Hampton Bays Elementary), it will also be hiring four to five more employees as the project nears completion. Caltabiano said he will need additional wait staff, a cook, delivery personnel, and counter help.
For Caltabiano, the labor will be all worth it when Hampton Bays residents see the enhancement it brings to Ponquogue Avenue.
“I’m just very proud to be part of the Hampton Bays community for 25 years,” he says. “We named the store after mom, Mama Francesca, who still makes the homemade lentil soup and rice balls, which are nice Italian specialties. Hampton Bays has been very good to us.”