A Rhode Island chef who has been featured on the Food Network is researching potential sites for an upscale Italian restaurant on Pine Avenue or downtown near Third Street.
Walter Potenza, owner of Walter's Ristorante d'Italia in Providence, R.I., met with four city councilmen Monday to discuss his plans to build a restaurant and cultural center in the Falls that could house a community cooking school.
"The geography, the proximity to an international attraction, make a lot of sense," Potenza said.
Potenza, who has not yet purchased property or made an investment in the city, estimated the project would cost up to $500,000. He would like to open the restaurant within a year, but has not finalized plans or made a decision about its location.
He told the councilmen he is considering buying a city-owned tract of vacant land at 15th Street and Pine Avenue, as well as other sites downtown.
The Pine Avenue Business Association has been working to promote a "Little Italy" theme on the commercial strip of Route 62A, where an open-air market and several Italian restaurants are located within 20 blocks.
Mary Jo Zacher, the association's director, said businesses in the neighborhood are looking to attract more privately owned restaurants like Potenza's proposed restaurant, rather than bringing in commercial chains.
Zacher and other community leaders have struggled to transform the Pine Avenue neighborhood into an Italian-themed commercial district as modern chains like McDonald's and Family Video have constructed buildings on the street.
"Some people's idea is to try to get Olive Garden there. No, we don't want it," Zacher said. "We're not trying to say those aren't good places, but it's not what we're looking for."
Zacher has urged city leaders to adopt stricter building and design codes in the neighborhood.
Potenza, who owns two restaurants in Providence, began researching Niagara Falls as a potential location after meeting Zacher at a conference for leaders of Little Italy communities from New York State.
Potenza has hosted two Providence-area cooking shows and has been featured on the Food Network show "Tyler's Ultimate." He also runs a cooking school in Rhode Island.
The Italian-born chef said he would like to promote Pine Avenue because of its Little Italy theme, but is weighing the neighborhood compared to downtown areas near the Niagara Falls State Park and the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel that get more summer traffic.
"In terms of the flow and the public, is that too distant?" Potenza asked about Pine Avenue. "I don't know."