Angelos confirms buying Little Italy restaurant building

Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos, whose investments include the Baltimore Orioles and downtown office towers, confirmed Thursday that he is the mystery buyer of a prime parcel on Baltimore's east side.

Angelos said that, working through an agent, he bid $1.45 million at auction Wednesday for the dormant Boccaccio Restaurant in Little Italy, a prominent property that includes nearly one-third of an acre and was put up for sale after the death of its owner in 2008.

The sale by A. J. Billig & Co. Auctioneers also included more than a dozen bricks salvaged from Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, each autographed by a former Orioles or Colts great who dined in the restaurant or by another celebrity, such as author Tom Clancy or sports commentator John Madden. Signers include Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer, Tom Matte, Art Donovan and Peter Angelos himself.

Angelos' latest acquisition was cheered by Little Italy residents and business owners who said it will benefit the area to have a neighbor with his clout. His purchase was also seen as a sign of private investment moving northward from the Harbor East renewal area and eastward from the heart of downtown.

"Everybody's thrilled, elated" that Angelos is the purchaser, said Giovanna M. Blattermann, vice president of the Little Italy Community Organization and a longtime neighborhood leader. "Now he has a piece of the east side. ... This is a tremendous boost for the community."

It's "a strategic location," said architect Peter Fillat, who recently moved his offices nearby. Fillat said he sees the sale as "part of the overflow of Harbor East. ... The fact that we have a prime developer coming in is very positive."

Angelos said Thursday that he was a frequent patron of Boccaccio Restaurant and knows the property is a valuable location with Harbor East to the south, the Inner Harbor to the west, Little Italy to the north and Fells Point to the east. He had representatives tour the building Thursday with auctioneer Andrew L. Billig, checking the location of light switches and surveying its contents.

"It's correct. I did" buy the restaurant, Angelos said in a phone interview. "I was a patron there from the time they began operating. I was practically there every day. ... I think the location is excellent, and it's a part of Little Italy, which is a special place."

Besides being the majority owner of the Orioles, Angelos owns the One Charles Center office tower at 100 N. Charles St., where the law firm that bears his name is based; the Johns Hopkins Downtown Center at Charles and Fayette streets; and the old Fidelity and Deposit building on Charles Street.

In 2000 he bought Maison Marconi at 106 W. Saratoga St., long considered one of the city's best restaurants, but closed it in 2005. He also had an interest in the old Tail of the Fox restaurant on York Road in Timonium, a building that has been replaced by a strip shopping center, and the building that housed Mamma Celina's restaurant in Little Italy, among other restaurant-related ventures.

Angelos indicated when he closed Marconi's that he might move it to another building he controls, such as One Charles Center or the Fidelity & Deposit building, but that hasn't happened.

Angelos said Thursday that he has made no decision about what to do with the Boccaccio property. He acknowledged that one option was to reopen it as a restaurant, but he said if he did so, he would want to assemble a staff as good as it once had. The sale included most of Boccaccio's contents, including furnishings and kitchen equipment, but not the wine, liquor or artwork.

Another option would be to raze the building to make way for development. The lot contains about 13,500 square feet of space and is zoned for industrial use. It was one of the larger parcels for sale near Harbor East.

Named after the 14th-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the Eastern Avenue restaurant was opened in 1992 by Giovanni Rigato and closed after he died. Featuring northern Italian cuisine, it attracted many celebrities over the years, including Luciano Pavarotti, Tony Bennett, John Travolta and Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York, but the owners didn't go out of their way to publicize celebrities' visits or display their photos. The auction drew about 50 people, and bidding started at $700,000.

Blattermann said she could see the land being redeveloped with a midrise building about the same size as one on the next block east, with retail space at street level and perhaps offices above. She said a new building could trigger additional redevelopment along Eastern Avenue and make it a more upscale gateway to Little Italy from the east - Baltimore's version of Rodeo Drive.

"We would welcome his investment, whether he reopens a fine dining establishment or it becomes a development site," said Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.

The sale conjured bittersweet memories for Rigato's widow, Mary, who attended Wednesday's auction and returned to the building Thursday to take stock of certain items that weren't part of the sale.

"I don't know what to say," she said. "I'm sorry to see it go. I'm happy to see it go. I'm happy to retire."

As for Angelos taking over, "I think he's going to do something terrific with it," she said. "I'm really glad he bought it."