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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Italian Bistro takes over Hampstead eatery

JT’s Brick Oven Pizza will soon become Italian Bistro, located in Surf City Crossing near Harris Teeter and Lowe’s in Hampstead. (Courtesy Google Maps)

PENDER COUNTY — According to Italian Bistro owner Jason James, the timing is right for a second eatery to pop up after more than a decade serving diners in the Porters Neck area.

READ MORE: ‘A man of character’: Family, friends mourn loss of local restaurateur James Smith

On Tuesday, James took over the lease for the former JT’s Brick Oven Pizza (201 Alston Blvd.), near Harris Teeter and Lowe’s in Pender County. His co-owners, including chef Jason Raynor and Chris Harris, will help operate the new location.

“Chris will be the one mainly running the store up there,” James said. 

Raynor has been with James for two decades. The pair worked together when James opened his first downtown Wilmington restaurant, The Pizza Bistro — which eventually evolved into Italian Bistro — located in the Cotton Exchange from 1999 through the early aughts. The two moved their families to Lake Norman in 2005 to open Sauced Italian Bistro but ended up selling the operation to move back to the coast and start up Italian Bistro in a different location in 2011.

“He is one of the hardest working guys out there,” James said, praising the chef. “I know that everything is in good hands when he’s in the building — or even not in the building; he’s always just taking care of stuff.”

Expanding the brand has been on their radar for a while, particularly in the Hampstead and Leland areas. James, who lives in Leland, said they were approached a few times during the Covid-19 pandemic about locations opening. 

“We could barely get enough staff in our own restaurant,” he said, “nevermind trying to take on another one.”

Yet, he had also been approached numerous times throughout the years. It wasn’t until recently a friend reached out about the Surf City Crossing restaurant. That it’s a turnkey operation appealed to the restaurateurs most. 

“It seemed like a good opportunity,” he said. “So the changes we’re going to make are fairly minimal — it will be an easy transition hopefully.”

The second Italian Bistro, located only 20 minutes from its flagship, is smaller, able to serve 15 to 20 diners indoors. James has plans to add on an outdoor patio as well to expand the footprint. 

The 1,200-square-foot eatery will remain open through the transformation. James expects to hire around 20 employees to run the operation; the Porters Neck location employs more than 40 people.

“We’re going to be out there today,” he said Tuesday, “changing the recipes and getting all of our products in the building. We’re just trying to teach the [JT’s] staff of eight how we do everything — get all the recipes and our menu implemented.”

Only a few updates are needed to the space itself — a coat of paint and some new decorations. 

“There is some cosmetic work for the interior, but we need to come up with a plan,” he said. “We may have to close a few days to paint.”

James expects the grand opening to take place in September after new signs are installed.

In the meantime, it will serve a truncated menu to get it up and running — just a few pies, strombolis and calzones. The full Italian Bistro menu consists of numerous pasta dishes, sandwiches, daily specials, salads and appetizers. Within a year, it will offer everything Italian Bistro in Porters Neck does, seven days a week for lunch and dinner.

As for another eatery farther south near his home in Brunswick County, James said he’s not ruling it out, but it has to be the right place. 

“The main thing we keep running into so far out that way is it’s all brand new construction,” he said, meaning the cost to build from the ground up can be more expensive. “We’ve done our due diligence on a couple places out there, but the time isn’t right yet.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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