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Little Italy facing big challenges

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.

"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."

Goolst, 50, a real estate agent who lives in Baltimore County, was stunned and delighted to see Harbor East rise out of what had been largely vacant or unused land and hopes that there might be similar tax benefits and other public assistance for development in Little Italy.

For some, though, the neighborhood's old-school style is the selling point.

"I like to tell people, Little Italy ain't Disneyland," said Mel Stachura, president of the Little Italy Property Owners Association. "It's a real neighborhood."

Stachura, who isn't Italian, grew up in Canton and moved to Little Italy in 2002, precisely because of the old-school feel. "It's hard to find properties for sale here because we're still a word-of-mouth market — 'I heard Rosa is selling her house.'"

He said the neighborhood sometimes is overlooked in the face of newer, trendier areas — once even getting left off the city's official tourist map. But while he enjoys having the added shopping and dining offered by Harbor East, he hopes Little Italy can preserve its character.

"We certainly are concerned about losing our identity," Stachura said. "We don't want to be Harbor East North."

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