The world has changed, but the world still needs a great meatball. I do not mean a meatball made from Kobe beef and retailing for $14. I certainly do not mean frozen supermarket meatballs. I mean a simple, delicious and comforting meatball that people make at home.
Except that they don't.
Americans think meatballs are so easy to make everyone must make them. Truth is, most people go years without making meatballs. So they go out to an Italian restaurant and ignore the meatball, thinking they have had them regularly at home or that money should be spent on something more current and exciting.
While the meatball has enjoyed something of a renaissance among food hipsters, only trendy meatballs — made with odd ingredients and toppings — get any attention.
The traditional meatball, a staple of Italian-America dinner tables for decades, has been denigrated as out of date — in much the same way Baltimore's Little Italy has been denigrated.
With some restaurants shuttered and Italian-American families dying off or moving out, the hand-wringing has started: What will become of the old neighborhood? Have we fallen out of love with Little Italy? Are its restaurants no longer a destination, even for birthdays and prom nights? Is the food too heavy?
Yes, the neighborhood has changed. There aren't as many Italian-Americans as there used to be. That happens when immigrants from a particular country stop landing in a particular place. Ethnic identity fades and vanishes through the generations unless it is actively kept alive.
Baby boomers whose parents and grandparents were immigrants from Italy need to recruit a new generation — starting with their own kids — to buy a house in the old neighborhood, or rent, or at least visit now and then, maybe take some Italian lessons at the Pandola Center, form a bocce team, attend St. Leo's Church or join the Sons of Italy lodge.
There needs to be a giant, steamy spaghetti bowl on top of that awful parking garage (at President and Pratt) that makes the entrance to Little Italy so unfriendly. A whimsical, well-lighted icon would certainly soften the tableau. The spaghetti bowl would be a retro touch, no doubt. But that's still part of Little Italy's identity — that it's an old neighborhood, a throwback to when it was fully an ethnic enclave. That still has appeal.
OK, so it's not all that anymore. But what do people want when they go to Little Italy? They want to feel that they're in an Italian neighborhood — a friendly Italian neighborhood.
"People don't sit outside anymore," Marion "Mugs" Mugavero said the other day. "The guys who used to hang on the corners, they don't do that anymore. That's why you get trouble in a neighborhood — not enough people outside."
For decades, Mugs ran the store and soda fountain that his son, Greg, just turned into a smart-looking bistro, at the corner of Exeter and Fawn. Mugs is 90. He remembers the days when people had huge families. That's not happening in Little Italy any longer, but the need for vigilance and neighborliness is still essential. Live in a rowhouse neighborhood in Baltimore, and you have a civic obligation to sit outside now and then to keep an eye on things.
In Little Italy, smiles help, too. It's still a tourist destination.
Some of the restaurants serve blah food; their foundational tomato sauces are the kind that wowed Americans in spaghetti houses after World War II. That doesn't work anymore.
Little Italy restaurants had it easy for years. But there's a lot more competition now — and immediately south, in Harbor East.
There are many smart and good things going on in the neighborhood. To mention a few: the intimate atmosphere of Osteria Da Amedeo (small is the way to go, if anyone has an idea about opening a new place); the cabaret at Germano's; the black spaghetti with crab meat at La Tavola (the only pasta dish in the world worth $22); the polenta with mushrooms at Caesar's Den; and everybody still raves about Aldo's. There's Vacarro's for sweets, Isabella's for pizza, Casa di Pasta for fresh take-homes, and the Friday night outdoor movies on Da Mimmo's parking lot. All good.
Little Italy needs an artist painting on the corner of High and Fawn — as the late Tony DeSales used to do — and maybe a street musician or two.
But most of all, Little Italy needs to be grounded in the fundamentally great meatball, rolled by hand and simmered and softened just right in a tomato sauce that bubbles with pride.
You make a better meatball, and sell it with spaghetti for no more than $10.99 (dinner price), and people will beat a path to your door. They'll come back, too. More Baltimoreans will see Little Italy restaurants for what they should be — places where you can grab supper in the middle of the week and not go broke, or splurge when so moved. That puts feet on the street. Build a great meatball, and they will come.