A bittersweet transition is taking place on Bristol Borough’s Mill Street.
After six years showcasing the masterpieces of local creatives, the volunteer-run Centre for the Arts is closing.
However, the space won’t be dark for long.
Itri Wood Fired, located right next door, is expanding operations into the neighboring property. Restaurant owner Dana Pezza will pay rent to the CFA, allowing it to focus on mural projects throughout the community instead of a gallery. One such mural was installed in November – a Bristol-inspired piece by Langhorne’s Jean-Marc Dubus on the wall of Penn Community Bank.
According to Pezza, this fresh chapter for 308 Mill Street is a win for both parties.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the CFA struggled to make a profit. Because of widespread unemployment, locals were purchasing art less frequently. With sales down, artists were unable to afford the cost of renting wall space at the CFA. Meanwhile, Itri was forced to operate at extremely limited capacity due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s ongoing mitigation efforts.
“We’re pretty tiny, so it was very difficult to cover the bills having that capacity restriction. It would only allow us to have four tables,” said Pezza. “We did that for a while, and then when we realized the CFA was going to close, we approached them saying we need more seating. We need more space to be able to continue to operate, and we were willing to pay them rent to do so.”
Itri, which opened almost four years ago, was already renting the back room of the CFA for small weddings, showers and other private events.
“We are now going to expand seating into the front of the CFA and then pay them extra rent,” said Pezza. “It’s a very difficult decision for them, but I know that they were just not able. They have bills and it’s a very big building and they were not able to keep up with that.”
Still, the space won’t be entirely art-free. Pezza intends to keep the CFA’s tradition alive by featuring local pieces once construction is complete. This is slated to be in the beginning of March.
“Through all of this, we have been next to the CFA for as long as we’ve been open. They’ve been open for a little bit longer than us. We’ve enjoyed having them as neighbors and enjoyed working with the artists. So many of our customers were able to experience the art next door and we just want to keep that going and put some art back on the walls,” Pezza said. “It’s kind of bittersweet. We love the art center, but they have bills to pay. So anything we can do to help them continue projects around town, we’re definitely interested in.”
In addition to helping the CFA continue its work in a different capacity, Itri’s takeover will help its own staff members remain employed, which has been Pezza’s No. 1 priority since the onset of the pandemic.
“They’ve been with us for a long time and we’re a very small knit group. In the beginning of all this, it was just so scary and no one had a lot of answers to the virus. I just remember thinking, ‘What should we do? Should we close?’ Everybody worked super hard over the summer with everything that was thrown at them,” said Pezza. “We were actually able to, with the PPP loans, raise the salary of every single one of our workers.”
As Itri prepares for its physical expansion, staff is working behind-the-scenes to also expand its menu options.
“We do a lot of our stuff in-house, all of our dressings, our mozzarella cheese, our pastas are handmade,” said Pezza. “So it’s actually given our kitchen the time to slow down and experiment with ingredients that we want to introduce.”
Pezza runs Itri Wood Fired along with her husband Greg, a member of the Bristol Borough Council. His father is Bill Pezza, president of Bristol Borough Raising the Bar, the nonprofit group that operates the Centre for the Arts.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com