If you're looking for Italian cuisine in Baltimore, chances are you'll end up in this tiny enclave just east of the Inner Harbor. But while first-time visitors usually stumble upon Little Italy to satisfy their taste buds, there is more to this ethnic community than edible delights.

Lady Madonna: A statue protects this formstone house. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

Stroll down the streets and you'll see just how much pride the residents take in their heritage -- even though many of them might be two or three generations removed from their homeland. Italian flags flap above rooftop gardens. Awnings and wooden benches are striped with red, green and white paint. Ceramic Madonnas peer out from bay windows. Meticulously maintained brick and formstone row homes mingle with the restaurants for which Little Italy is known.

Yes, the neighborhood's residents celebrate their ethnicity with the same zest as their ancestors who moved to the area in the 1880s. Back then, Little Italy was a thriving, self-sufficient community that was virtually independent from the rest of Baltimore. Its residents played together, went to school together, married each other and raised their own families within the neighborhood's borders.

The Church of St. Leo the Great, the local Roman Catholic parish, had 2,400 members, and the neighborhood stretched from the Inner Harbor to Broadway.

Sign of the times: The red, white and green theme crops up frequently in this neighborhood. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

The Little Italy we know today is much smaller -- only about 12 square blocks. As younger residents left Little Italy for the suburbs, the number of parishioners at St. Leo's dropped considerably and the parish school closed. However, in recent years, suburbanites have returned to the church of their childhood to share their heritage with their families. This influx has given the church new life.

Housing prices more than doubled from 1999 to 2001, with homes selling for an average of $133,000. St. Leo's is refurbished and repainted, and the school is now an adult education center, offering classes that vary from the predictable ("Beginning Italian" and "American Citizenship Preparation") to the unexpected ("Introduction to Sausage Making" and "Italian Card Games"). In January 2000, the Lancellotta family of Catonsville donated $15,000 for a 350-pound bronze statue of St. Leo to be erected on the church facade.

Little Italy may be smaller and spiffier than it was 100 years ago, but one thing hasn't changed. Activity there, as in typical Italian households, revolves around three things: Church, family and food.

Make St. Leo's the first stop on your visit, if for no other reason than to appreciate its Romanesque architecture. Attend a Mass (8 a.m. weekdays; 5:30 p.m. Saturdays, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Sundays) and admire the intricate stained glass and the immense mural of St. Leo and the trinity that soars over the marble altar.

Rome wasn't built in a day: This house on South Exeter Street proves that there's more to Little Italy than cozy restaurants. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

From St. Leo's, stroll south on Exeter Street, and you'll see several quaint houses with painted shutters and stained glass adornments. Just two doors down from the church is a large, adobe-colored brick mansion that looks more suitable to Florence than Baltimore. The opulent home (owned by Johnny Guerriero, the former owner of Continental Foods, and his wife) contains marble floors, an indoor swimming pool and an exercise room.

Turn west on Fawn Street and at the intersection of Fawn and S. High streets you'll find the neighborhood's culinary heart: Some of its most long-lived restaurants are located here. Sabatino's, one of the city's most popular restaurants, is often frequented by Orioles owner Peter Angelos and other local politicians and celebrities. Former vice president Spiro Agnew even dined here the night he pleaded no contest to tax evasion. Because of its popularity, Sabatino's is almost always crowded, so look elsewhere if you're looking for romance. With more than 20 restaurants in the area, romantic ambience shouldn't be hard to find.

Match made in heaven: Can't decide where to go for dinner? Here's a hint. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

One of the more idyllic eateries in Little Italy is Dalesio's. This pretty bistro invokes images of Venice with its second-story patio trimmed by neat wrought-iron rails. Dalesio's is the only place in the neighborhood that serves spa cuisine -- food that is miraculously low in fat, cholesterol and sodium, but high in taste.

A distinctly European flavor can also be found at La Tavola. The exterior walls and windows of this large building are festooned with colorful murals of Italian scenes. Upstairs, the reception room is always filled with revelers imbibing and smoking around the surrealistic bar.

Extravagance arrived on Little Italy's restaurant scene with the opening of Aldo Ristorante Italiano in May 1998. Sandwiched between brick and formstone residences, the beige stucco building resembles a Roman palace. A sleek mahogany door is flanked by columns that rise three stories.

While fine restaurants like Aldo attract attention for their beauty and grace, most of the eateries in Little Italy have their own special charms. Da Mimmo provides nightly entertainment in its lounge, where you can "have a cocktail with the stars." Germano Fabiani, a native of Tuscany, pipes a little of his homeland into Germano's Trattoria. There, soccer enthusiasts crowd the tiny bar to watch the Florentine soccer team play on cable TV. The large and popular Luigi Petti looks like the Italian Riviera with its swaying palm trees and expansive outdoor deck.

Holy cannoli: Dig in at Vaccaro's. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

Another popular spot in the neighborhood is Vaccaro's Pasticceria, which justifiably bills itself as "the place for desserts." There's enough sugar in this place to make you giddy. Try the chocolate-dipped cannoli, the Amaretto tiramisu or the creamy gelati. Wash it all down with a fish bowl-sized cup of your favorite hot beverage, sure to be bubbling over the top with whipped cream and chocolate bits. If you've already had dinner and didn't save room for dessert, you can take any of Vaccaro's delicacies home with you. Chocoholics take note: Vaccaro's offers an all-you-can eat dessert special on Monday nights from 6 to 9. It's $11, not including your dental bill. (See All-you-can-sweet.)

Around the world: Water from the Moon Gallery is one of the few places where you can do something besides eat. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

Across the street from Vaccaro's is one of the few places that peddles non-edibles in Little Italy. Water from the Moon is a tiny gallery selling unique ceramics, pewter, mirrors, woodcarvings and other designs.

If you don't want to make 20 trips to Little Italy but you want to try every restaurant in the neighborhood, check out the Taste of Italy. It's held every September, and there you can sample each restaurant's specialty and even compete in a beauty pageant or spaghetti-eating contest.

You can also experience the full brunt of Little Italy's ethnic heritage at two annual festivals, both of which feature bocce tournaments, music, merriment and mangia. A June festival honors St. Anthony and the gaiety revolves around St. Gabriel in August.

Since 1999, there has been another scheduled celebration in Little Italy: The Open Air Italian Film Festival. On Friday nights in July and August, approximately 2,000 moviegoers pack the parking lot at the intersection of High and Stiles streets, arranging their lawn chairs in prime locations for free showings of Italian-themed or Italian-made films like "Moonstruck," "Life is Beautiful," "Tea With Mussolini" and "Cinema Paradiso."

Bocce, anyone? The bocce court awaits the return of warm weather. (Photo by Emily Deutschman, Special to SunSpot)

After you've eaten your way through the neighborhood, walk off a few pounds on your way to the local bocce courts. Located on Stiles Street between S. High and S. Exeter streets, the courts host cutthroat tournaments and local league games. If you happen upon a game, you'll notice that bocce is like a cross between lawn bowling and horseshoes. Players compete to see who can roll the ball closest to the pallino, the target ball.

Perhaps the only drawback to visiting Little Italy is the lack of parking. Restaurant patrons vie with residents for coveted curbside spots, and the few small lots tend to fill up fast on weekends. Many restaurants now offer valet parking for a fee (usually $5), which, if you're emptying your wallet for dinner anyway, is a convenient option. Some Inner Harbor hotels offer complimentary limousine service so out-of-towners can arrive in style. A multilevel garage at Central and Bank streets, which holds 400 vehicles at a maximum cost of $6, has alleviated some of those hassles.

Getting to Little Italy is the easy part. It's deciding which festival to attend or where to dine that's the challenge. Whether you're craving a gourmet meal, looking for some cultural edification, or just trying to add some flavor to your love life, Little Italy provides a great backdrop.