"It is made for older people," Scotto said of some Little Italy restaurants that serve food that's "much too heavy."

While many Little Italy restaurant menus still lean toward traditional and sometimes weighty offerings such as lasagna and fettucine alfredo, they also include lighter and seasonal fare. "It's a tightrope," said Lisa Morekas, a manager at Sabatino's.

"You want to cultivate the younger generation, but you don't want to snub the people who have been your bread and butter for 50 years," said Morekas, who represents the third generation of the family that owns the Little Italy institution and says her restaurant has not seen a drop-off in business. "We have a significant base, and they want to eat what they've been eating for 40 years, 30 years, 10 years.

"What if we were to take the Bookmaker off the menu?" she said with mock horror, referring to the restaurant's signature salad laden with Genoa salami, provolone cheese, shrimp and hard-boiled egg. "There are a lot of people who like chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, baked rigatoni. That's what people still recognize as Italian."

Diane Neas, a restaurant consultant in the Baltimore area, said Little Italy is going through the same evolution as other ethnic enclaves. As the first generation of immigrants moves away, neighborhoods like Little Italy, Greektown and Chinatown shrink and lose some of their unique character.

And as the immigrants assimilate into the mainstream culture, their food no longer seems exotic, limited to a single neighborhood or even requiring a special trip out, she said.

"People's culinary skills have come a long way," Neas said. "There are all these cooking shows, and we have all these wonderful outlets to get great ingredients. A lot of people are not intimidated by cooking Italian anymore."

Little Italy is worth preserving, she said, and it would be great to see new or revived businesses — somewhere to pick up fresh pasta like Velleggia's used to sell from its retail shop, or to buy gelato.

But as Suzanna Molino, director of the Promotion Center for Little Italy points out, you can buy fresh pasta at Casa di Pasta and gelato at Vaccaro's.

Greg Mugavero, whose father, Marion, now 90, ran Mugs' Confectionery for decades, recently reopened the store as a sandwich shop with a more modern feel. The place pays homage to its past with the original aluminum bar stools and black-and-white photos of Little Italy's founding families.

Mugavero, 43, says he wanted to honor his father and the neighborhood's history — and educate younger generations.

"They don't know the history, and they don't know what it used to be," he said. "It used to be a force to be reckoned with."

As in many other Eastern seaboard cities, waves of Italian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries built Baltimore's community, once the childhood home of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose father and brother, "Big Tommy" and "Young Tommy" D'Alesandro, both served as mayor. Some Little Italys, such as Boston's, continue to thrive, while others, like Manhattan's, have been nearly swallowed up by gentrification or other forces.

In Baltimore, the neighborhood, which once stretched from the eastern Inner Harbor to Broadway, has shrunk a bit as younger generations moved away. But remaining residents are as tight-knit as any family.

Blatterman said community and business leaders need to better market the area, and she thinks a few new shops would help lessen the dependence on restaurants to draw people in. She admits that part of the problem might be the "cliquish" tendencies of herself and her neighbors.

"We can be a hindrance to progress," she said.

People driving by don't necessarily know that Little Italy is tucked behind such busy thoroughfares as Pratt or President streets, said City Councilman Jim Kraft, who represents the area. And as an older neighborhood, it can get taken for granted as newer areas such as Harbor East get more attention, he said.

Kraft said the city's promoters and the restaurants themselves have to shine a brighter light on the neighborhood. "If we continue to neglect it, someday we'll be saying, 'Remember when Baltimore used to have a Little Italy?'"

Jeff Goolst also thinks that Little Italy could use some updating, but needs to stay uniquely itself. He has proposed new rowhouses that would have an "authentic Italian village" look, as well as a condo building that recalls the Leaning Tower of Pisa — but has been unable to secure financing.

Still, he remains hopeful for the neighborhood he used to visit as a boy with his father. Goolst said of returning there after years of living away, "I saw Little Italy and nothing had changed. I saw no new development going on to benefit the community."