Families strolled in under flags of red, white and green. Workers from La Tavola stepped out into the drizzle for a better look. A quartet played Frank Sinatra's "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)."

All of Little Italy seemed to have turned out yesterday for what one observer called "The Return of the Prodigal Hon." It was here that Nancy Pelosi learned politics at the knee of her father, Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. On the day after she became the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, a crowd outside her childhood home welcomed her back to the neighborhood."It's a matter of pride," said longtime resident Sam Brunetto, who remembered the girl everyone knew as "Little Nancy" playing in the streets. "Tears come to your eyes when hear the name Pelosi."

Pelosi returned the emotion, beaming as she addressed the well-wishers - many of whom she had known for decades - from a stage set up in front of 245 Albemarle St., the rowhouse from which her father once presided over the city.

"I wanted to come back here to say thank you to all of you, for the spirit of community that has always strengthened and inspired my life," Pelosi said. "Every step that I took to the speakership began in this neighborhood."

The long-planned visit gave Pelosi a brief respite from the challenges she faces in Washington. Having led Democrats back to the majority, she now must hold together a fractious caucus while advancing an agenda that will enable the party to keep its majority in 2008.

Like other events at which Pelosi celebrated her installation this week, the visit was intended to position the liberal politician in the center of popular imagination. A tea for Democratic women, Mass at Trinity University and a reception at which Tony Bennett sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" had underlined her credentials as a woman, a Roman Catholic and an Italian-American.

Now, in an event that had been planned to launch her week - it was postponed from Tuesday after the death of President Gerald R. Ford - she was drawing attention to her beginnings.

"Her Baltimore roots enable her to sidestep the label of San Francisco liberal," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew A. Crenson, who came up with the "Prodigal Hon" line.

"It shows she comes from a religious, ethnic, working-class neighborhood," Crenson said. "In a party not known for family values, she is one person who can return to her childhood home, her church, her roots."

Not everyone was convinced. Some Catholics protested when Pelosi, who supports abortion rights, attended the Mass on Wednesday at Trinity in Washington, her alma mater. In Little Italy yesterday, one woman held up a sign calling for an end to abortion.

The Rev. Michael Salerno, pastor of the Church of St. Leo the Great - her childhood parish - blessed the speaker on her return to the neighborhood.

"Fifty years ago, women in Little Italy hardly ever ventured even to go to Highlandtown," Salerno said. "The highest women's job then was homemakers, factory worker or storekeeper. ... Today, we come to acknowledge success through family, faith and education."

Pelosi linked her work with her faith.

"My parents did not raise me to be speaker of the House," she said. "They raised me to be holy. They raised me to do the right thing. They raised me to recognize that we have a responsibility to people in need."

Earlier in the day, Pelosi laid a bouquet of white roses at a statue of her father. Her brother, former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, introduced her to the crowd in Little Italy. Mayor Martin O'Malley had renamed the 200 block of Albemarle Street Via Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi.

Pelosi was joined by most of the Maryland delegation to Congress: Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Reps. Elijah Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen.

Theresa Miller watched the spectacle from across Albemarle Street. Miller, 86, remembers the day that Tommy and Annunciata D'Alesandro finally had a girl, after five sons. The good news traveled fast through Little Italy.

"They were so happy, and we were so excited for them," said Miller, who lived around the corner from Baltimore's first family. "They were such a nice family."

Now second in line to the presidency, Pelosi is the highest-ranking woman ever in the U.S. government. Mikulski, who speaks frequently about increasing the number of women in Congress, expressed pride that Pelosi had "broken the marble ceiling."

"And I'm glad that it was a fellow Baltimorean," Mikulski said. "And I'll tell you, she can count on her friend from Highlandtown to help her."

Pelosi described the women of her neighborhood as strong. She mentioned the mother of former Attorney Gen. J. Joseph Curran Jr., who also grew up on Albemarle Street. And she described her own upbringing.

"We were raised in a family that was devoutly Catholic, deeply patriotic, extremely proud of our Italian-American heritage - extremely proud of that - and, in our case, staunchly Democratic," she said. "They told us public service was a noble calling."

Longtime residents spoke of the D'Alesandros as an unassuming family.

Jerry DiPaolo, a longtime worker for the National Brewing Co., used to deliver beer to the house on Albemarle Street.

"The door was open all the time," said DiPaolo, who turns 90 next week. "I never had to knock. They were always part of the community. Never aloof."

As an Italian-American, DiPaolo said he was "the proudest guy in the whole world.

"Not only because she's Italian," he said. "She's such a nice person. The whole family was."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com