When utility crews dug up the intersection of Eastern Avenue and South High Street a couple of years ago, Gia Blatterman stood nearby and tried to picture Little Italy in 50 years.
Would the low-slung rowhomes and Italian restaurants have given way to shiny high-rises? Would Italians even live there? Blatterman ran home, scribbled a note and stuffed it in a bottle; the utility workers humored her, burying the makeshift time capsule deep in the ground.
Decades from now, when the corner is excavated again, someone might learn that it was once an entrance to her beloved neighborhood.
"We can't assume that [Little Italy] is going to go on forever," the 66-year-old Blatterman, who leads the neighborhood association, said last week as she enjoyed a meatball sub at Mugs', a South Exeter Street institution that opened the year she was born. "We are trying to gracefully hand it over to the younger generation. But we worked so hard to make Little Italy into what it is, and that transition needs respect from the younger generation. Gratitude."
As the neighborhood hosts the St. Gabriel Festival this weekend — a tradition for more than 80 years — residents and business owners acknowledge that the tight-knit ethnic enclave is entering a pivotal phase.
Many of the immigrants who built the neighborhood in the early and mid-20th century are aging or have passed away. Attracting a younger crowd to the favorite restaurants of their grandparents has proved challenging. And a recent uptick in crime — including a beating caught on camera — in what has traditionally been one of Baltimore's safest neighborhoods has some feeling vulnerable.
Mary Ann Campanella, a former neighborhood association leader, is blunt about her growing concerns: "Our community is decaying."
Campanella says some neighborhood restaurants have not kept up with the times in decor or price, and she worries about 27 empty buildings she's counted in the small area. While she believes concerns about recent crime are overblown, Campanella wonders if the publicity will drive away visitors and spawn a cycle: With fewer restaurant-goers walking around, the streets will feel more dangerous.
"I never thought it would come to this in Little Italy," said Campanella, 71, who has lived in the neighborhood her entire life. "Everything is being beautifully developed around us and we haven't kept up."
Last month, a busboy at Amicci's was robbed after work by as many as 11 youths who stole his cellphone and broke his jaw and teeth. The incident, caught on the camera of a nearby business, jarred residents who watched footage of the youths chasing and pummeling the man. On Wednesday morning, a 62-year-old employee at the Marriott Hotel was robbed in the 500 block of Albemarle St. She told police she fell and broke her wrist after being pistol-whipped.
When the neighborhood was in its prime, the streets and sidewalks were bustling and residents felt comfortable that they could spot potential troublemakers. Now, though, the neighborhood association has hired a private security firm to patrol two nights a week in response to several high-profile robberies.
Police said that they would increase patrols in Little Italy and other neighborhoods that have experienced a rise in street robberies. Some residents say Little Italy is still very safe, but long for the days when they could be responsible for their own security.
Norman Greenspun, who lives in Ruxton, used to love going to Little Italy late at night, after closing his place, Frazier's on the Avenue in Hampden. But no longer.
"My wife and myself, we'd close up at 12:30 [a.m.]; where else you going to eat at that hour?" Greenspun said. "We used to go to Sabatino's. But now, people don't know how to behave. You don't feel safe. I'm 76 years old, I'm not going to put myself in that position."
Like many, though, he has fond memories: buying cookies at Vaccaro's for his three young daughters to eat while they strolled the neighborhood, going to Sab's after seeing a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" and having its star, Zero Mostel, walk in to the diners' applause.
What brought Greenspun to Little Italy on Friday was another restaurant, but a closed one: Della Notte's, which in June became the latest Little Italy eatery to close, and hosted a preview of furnishings and equipment to be auctioned Monday.
From huge walk-in refrigerators to napkin rings, from floor-to-ceiling columns to "Reserved" table signs, auctioneer Paul Sobwick will be selling the remains of the 15-year-old restaurant. It joins other familiar eateries such as Boccaccio, Vellegia's and Rocco's Capriccio that have closed in recent years.
While such closings are not unusual across Baltimore, some believe a number of Little Italy's restaurants have not kept up with changing tastes. That was a common theme among some of the food industry crowd at the Della Notte preview.
"Little Italy is a little outdated," said Jennifer DeVos, who with chef Kevin Miller has a catering business, Copper Kitchen, in Federal Hill. With the popularity of TV cooking shows, DeVos said, people have become "more educated" about food and are drawn to trendier fare rather than Little Italy's classic offerings.
Tony Scotto, whose THB Bagels chain has outlets in the city and suburbs, was checking out Della Notte's tables and chairs, remembers coming to the neighborhood with his family — and still enjoys going to Aldo's. But the 26-year-old Towson resident said that if he had a date he wanted to impress, he'd probably opt for Cinghiale, the modern Italian restaurant in nearby Harbor East.