HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Pizzeria Paradiso chef and owner Ruth Gresser knows that few things pair better with pizza than beer. After all, Paradiso is known for having one of the city’s best craft beer programs.
But this year, Gresser is testing out a new pairing option for her Neapolitan brick oven pizzas: art.
Saturday, July 18 marks the groundbreaking ceremony for a joint community arts center and restaurant concept from Pizzeria Paradiso and Art Works Now at 4800 Rhode Island Ave. in Hyattsville, Maryland.
When it opens in the spring of 2016, the community will have one-stop access to art classes, camps, special events, and yes, pizza.
The new venture is an expansion of both businesses. Pizzeria Paradiso has three D.C.-area locations, and Art Works Now, which focuses on social justice issues through the expression of art, currently occupies 2,000 square feet in the Post Office building in Mt. Rainier, Maryland.
Art Works Now Founder and Executive Director Barbara Johnson has been looking to expand her nonprofit for years. When she heard that a long-abandoned florist shop and greenhouse was in foreclosure, she jumped on the opportunity to purchase the large and unique space.
Johnson, who grew up in the Mt. Rainier/Hyattsville area, remembers the once-bustling flower shop from when she was a kid.
“Every occasion in our family, my father sent my mother yellow roses that came from here,” she says.
She plans to preserve the historical integrity of the building and rehabilitate the space to include studios, a ceramics room and galleries for local and nationally recognized artists.
“What’s important to us is that everyone has access to creating art, using whatever materials feel best for them,” Johnson says.
The attached greenhouse will become a classroom with a special focus on nature and the environment — “which, of course, is a big social justice issue,” Johnson says. And 1,500 square feet of outdoor space will be transformed into an outdoor workspace and event area for community events.
As Johnson dreamed up the plans for the nonprofit’s new space in Hyattsville’s Gateway Arts District, she quickly realized the need for a partner to help sustain the costs for the building.
“The building was rather inexpensive on its own, but then it needs so much work,” Johnson says.
So she called on Gresser — her partner in life.
“Seeing as how my partner in life happens to be a chef and owner of Pizzeria Paradiso, I said, ‘What do you think? I think it could be so cool.’”
Gresser thought the idea of a neighborhood arts center and pizza joint made perfect sense.
“Obviously we have an affinity for the focus of each other’s lives, so art is very important to me and food is very important to Barbara,” Gresser says. “And they come together and this is sort of a manifestation of our relationship.”
The flower shop’s former customer service area will become the restaurant. Gresser says the size of the new Pizzeria Paradiso location will be about the size of the Dupont Circle restaurant. She’s also planning on additional outdoor patio seating.
Beer fans, have no fear: Gresser says Paradiso’s award-winning beer program will make its way to Rhode Island Avenue.
“It’s a very celebratory community and beer-focused from what I’ve become aware of,” Gresser says.
Johnson says she can’t wait for warm-weather Friday nights. She envisions hosting family-friendly community events with live music, movies and art.
“And it’s just open and active and they’re probably getting pizza from next door at Pizzeria Paradiso,” she says.
The convenience of the joint concept also makes it easier on the parents of Johnson’s art students.
“Parents can drop their kids off for a Saturday class and go have lunch next door. They don’t have to drive away and come back.”
But perhaps most of all, Johnson is looking forward to being a part of the revitalization of her hometown community.
“I remember … all of these buildings along this road were vibrant businesses. I think that the way our culture shifted, things changed and it just got a little bit slower and the face of the street changed.”
But the vibrancy is coming back, she says, thanks to the involvement of the local community and the Gateway Arts District.
“We’re not inventing this; we’re really taking the ball and running with something that amazing people started long ago,” Johnson says. “I feel like this Saturday is a celebration of our groundbreaking, but I also feel like it’s a celebration of the entire Arts District and where we’ve come, together as a community.”
The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Art Works Now and Pizzeria Paradiso will take place from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, July 18 at 4800 Rhode Island Ave. The event is free and open to the public.