CHESHIRE — The neighborhood surrounding the former Ball & Socket factory site on West Main Street continues to evolve.
The north side of West Main now features brick-paved sidewalks, benches and street lamps, added through a state grant. A pedestrian-and-bicyclist-friendly trail, which now runs through Cheshire and crosses West Main, was completed in 2018.
Businesses, including Brian's Guitars, Elle Salon & Spa, Matthew Scott's Barbershop, West Main Music Academy and others, also give the area some bustle.
And new businesses are on the way. Fuoco Apizza, under construction at 461 W. Main St., is one of them. Recently, on a rainy day, steady puffs of white smoke billowed for the first time from a pipe above the roof.
Inside, George Constanti, who co-owns the soon-to-open restaurant with his brother Christo, had fired up a recently assembled brick coal-fired oven for the first time. He's excited about the possibility that West Main could become a thriving commercial and cultural hub.
“That's why we chose West Main Street. We grew up here in Cheshire,” Constanti said.
Constanti worked as he spoke. He opened a small door to the right of the 10-foot-by-10-foot-large oven, pushing the crackling red-glowing firewood with a small-paddled shovel to stoke the flames.
The oven, special-ordered from Italy, will need more than a month to fully dry out and season its bricks, Constanti said. The oven was delivered in pieces across the Atlantic Ocean and took about four months to assemble.
Constanti is hoping to begin serving pizza by mid-March.
“You have to dry out the bricks to get the moisture out of it,” he said. “You do that by building a fire in it. We're doing it every day.”
Constanti’s mother and father opened their first shop in Prospect more than 40 years ago. His brother followed with his own restaurant, Christo's in Wallingford.
The storefront that is now Fuoco’s used to be Lora's Italian Deli.
“We remodeled and gutted the whole thing,” George Constanti said.
As he spoke, contractors were installing new piping above what will eventually become the restaurant’s seating area, which will comfortably hold 30 diners.
Nearby, inside Brian's Guitars, rows of electric guitars in various colors and makes hung on hooks along the walls. Scores of amplifiers were pushed underneath the instruments. The store specializes in guitars by Paul Reed Smith, a company store owner Brian Giampietro proudly noted had been started in 1985 — the same year he was born.
“So it's my generation's guitar,” said Giampietro, who like Constanti is a Cheshire native.
The store sells other brands — Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and others. It had outgrown its original space in Hamden and moved to the custom-built space on West Main more than two years ago.
A good chunk of Brian's Guitars’ sales are online.
The space is set up to allow customers to pick a guitar off the wall, plug into an amp, riff and noodle before purchasing.
“We can't keep the guitars behind locked glass. It's not right,” Giampietro said. “You got to let people play them.”
Gerald L. Sitko, the town’s longtime economic development coordinator, said the town had developed a vision for a walkable West Main Street several years back. So town officials applied, and received about $1.5 million in state grants — to extend the sidewalks and improve stormwater drainage, to reduce flooding.
“We slowly, but surely, are really raising the level of attractiveness in that area,” he said. “It's night and day.”
Meanwhile efforts to rehabilitate the former Ball & Socket factory complex, at 493 W. Main St., are “starting to pay off,” Sitko said.
Andrew Martelli, a member of the Board of Education and a member of the board of directors for Ball & Socket Arts, said that project is going well, ahead of schedule.
Crews are performing interior lead and asbestos abatement work in the main factory building — the brick building, while building two — the wood building — is being repainted and having windows replaced, Martelli said.
The work is being done through state grants.
Meanwhile, the Ball & Socket Arts organization will continue to raise funds, with several events planned later this year, Martelli said.
He is equally excited by the progress on West Main.
“It's nice that all of those projects are coming to fruition,” Martelli said.
Mahnaz Emamiam, who co-owns Elle Salon & Spa at 471 West Main with her husband Hassan, have welcomed clientele in the location for nearly 11 years.
Emamian said she started her first salon, with one employee, on Cornwall Avenue 16 years ago. Now the salon has 12 employees, including stylists, manicurists and make-up artists.
“It's fantastic. It's very good. We are growing every year,” she said.
Matthew Benedetto, who owns Matthew Scott's Barbershop across the street, has seen similar growth. The shop opened with just him — one barber and two chairs.
“Now I have five other barbers working for me,” Benedetto said.
He sees Ball & Socket's eventual reopening as an arts and cultural center as a potential game changer.
“It will help this area grow even more,” Benedetto said.
Emamian agreed. “I think in the future, West Main will be the downtown Cheshire,” she said.
As commerce on West Main continues to grow, Giampietro sees all of the businesses feeding off each other. He also owns West Main Music Academy, which offers private lessons on different instruments, across the street, at 470 W. Main. St.
“We have people who come in from Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont. Everytime someone walks in, they're asking where they can go eat lunch,” Giampietro said, adding he would love to refer those customers to a restaurant near his store.
He remembers there were some businesses in the area when he was growing up. But there weren't a lot.
“The town put a lot of effort into (developing) it, to make it a nice walkable downtown. But it wasn't like that when I was growing up,” Giampietro said.