Little Italy, nestled at the foot of the Jones Falls Expressway close to the Inner Harbor, has been a low-slung quarter of rowhouses, family restaurants and ravioli church suppers for as long as any Baltimorean can remember.
While the neighborhood's narrow streets and Formstone facades have endured, its denizens have watched warily as nearby warehouses and lumber yards morphed into condos, offices and some of the most luxe dining in the city.
Now investors hoping to capitalize on the growth of Harbor East are planning a crop of new projects in Little Italy, placing the neighborhood on the cusp of change and leaving people torn between wanting improvements and worrying the area will lose its homey charm.
Giovanna Blattermann moved to Little Italy as a 6-year-old from Sicily and once served on the city's zoning board. Steeped in politics and a veteran of redevelopment fights, the 69-year-old, whose family owns Cafe Gia on High Street, counts herself among the enclave's "old guard," able to spot in an instant those who are "neighborhood" and those who are not.
Blattermann said she hopes the new buildings will smooth the connection between Little Italy and Harbor East, drawing more people into neighborhood shops and spurring investments in rundown rental properties and vacant spaces.
"I'm part of the old guard with a new vision, but the vision is extremely guarded," she said. "As long as we proceed with changes respectfully … I think we can survive."
The new projects include WorkShop Development's proposal for a 16-story, 284-unit apartment building on the former site of the Della Notte restaurant at the corner of President and Fleet streets.
Next door, at 900 Fleet St., Washington-based Monument Realty, which has another large apartment project underway on Calvert Street, is planning an apartment tower with more than 300 units that would climb above a Verizon switching station.
At the old Milan restaurant at 1000 Eastern Ave., representatives for owner Sean Shahparast have approached neighbors about building 24 apartments.
And at 301 President St., part of a larger parking lot that has multiple owners, real estate attorneys are seeking zoning for buildings of unlimited height and multiple uses, including a hotel. (The firm did not respond to requests for comment.)
"The area between Fleet and Eastern has been a bit of a no-man's land," said Doug Schmidt, a principal at WorkShop Development. "Little Italy is changing, and I think being a seamless connection to Harbor East would be to its benefit."
The investments are a sign that Harbor East is expanding, said Joseph Gardella, 38, who opened Joe Benney's, a focaccia pizza restaurant on High Street, about 21/2 years ago, drawn to the area by childhood memories of overflowing streets and lively chatter. He said he knows rents may increase, but so will business — and he believes customers still want the mom-and-pop shops of Little Italy.
"There's something to be a said about a place where you come in and they make you feel like family," he said. "I'm not scared. I'm pretty optimistic because what I see now is new faces in Little Italy."
Joe Zuramski, the president of the technology firm ReliaSource, is among the new faces. The business, formerly based in Hampstead, relocated to Little Italy after Zuramski and partners purchased the former Vellegia's restaurant for about $1 million in 2014. The firm's 25 downtown employees now patronize restaurants and participate in local bocce games, he said.
"The neighborhood's just been overlooked for a long time, and I think all of this resurgence is just fantastic," Zuramski said.
But the news this summer that Boston's Restaurant & Sports Bar, a Dallas-based chain with more than 350 locations in North America, would open a franchise at Zuramski's building in January has prompted rumbles from some who say large chains that can afford higher rents will dilute the neighborhood's appeal.
"Things do need to change but we want to change them in the right direction," said Mario Pompa, 56, whose grandfather purchased property on Albemarle Street from former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. in 1939. "If big corporations and chains come in here, Little Italy's gone, and that's what we don't want to see."
Zuramski said he thinks those concerns are overblown. One of his goals was to find a restaurant that would not compete with existing establishments and would help draw a new, younger crowd into the neighborhood.
Fellow investors say they know it is a delicate balance. Though the march of investment north from Harbor East might look inevitable, it's a long time coming. Plans for some lots have come and gone. In other cases properties bought before the real estate crash have languished, empty, as people retire and restaurants close.
Finding a tenant that matches the neighborhood and has the financial strength to survive has been harder than expected, despite frequent inquiries, said Norris Dodson, a Washington real estate agent who purchased the former home of Pacific Coast Dining with a partner in 2006 for $850,000. The restaurant closed in 2013 and a large leasing sign now fills a main window.
Dodson said he's not sure how much longer he will hold on to the property, but he still expects the neighborhood to take off.
"Our intent initially was to grow with the neighborhood, and we still see the neighborhood growing," he said. "We have not found a tenant yet that has the strength that we think the area merits."
Many of the projects are nibbling around the edges of the neighborhood, leaving its residential core intact. Some younger households have started to move in, and for them, the area's character and long-standing community is part of the appeal, said Matt Daddio, 34, who bought a home in 2014 and is now president of the Little Italy Property Owners Association.
"We're a lot different from Federal Hill or Fells Point or Canton, which are great, but are seen as more transient," said Daddio, who previously rented in Brewers Hill, Highlandtown and Canton. "Culturally, it's an interesting place to live."
Parking is a constant concern, but Daddio said he hopes to see people spruce up their properties.
And Blattermann said it may be time for the buildings to rise higher to make sure Little Italy keeps up.
"It comes a time when you have to let go a little bit," she said. "It's time now. … I'm very optimistic that Little Italy, the facade may change a little bit, but I think the essence of our community will be here."
If not, Ray Alcaraz, 54, whose mother still lives in Little Italy in the house she was born in, said he believes people will fight to keep it that way.
"I hear Inner Harbor East is starting to get into Little Italy, and I hope that doesn't happen because Little Italy is its own neighborhood and it's a proud neighborhood," said Alcaraz, a former president of the Little Italy Promotion Center. "I will be sticking up for it till the day I die."