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Philomena Scalia, Little Italy stalwart and renowned baker, dies

Philomena Rose Scalia was famed for her mastery of Italian baking.
Philomena Rose Scalia was famed for her mastery of Italian baking.

Philomena Rose Scalia, recalled as one of Little Italy’s most prolific home bakers, appeared healthy and resilient when she was photographed last year for a Baltimore Sun article describing how her community was coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

Though she was healthy until earlier this year, she died of COVID-19 complications Tuesday at Mercy Medical Center. She was 92.

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A longtime worker in the State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore City, she was a locally renowned baker and once made cassata and rum cakes for President Jimmy Carter while he visited Baltimore.

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Vincenzo Cucco, a London Fog master tailor, and his wife, Antoinette. She attended St. Leo’s School and was a graduate of St. Michael the Archangel Commercial School, where she learned secretarial skills.

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“She told stories of growing up in Little Italy, going to St. Leo’s School when there was a school band, of delivering meals her mother cooked for elderly neighbors who were shut-ins, of baking pastries she shared with the neighbors, and participating in the street festivals and other activities,” said her daughter, Rosalia Scalia.

She became an administrative assistant at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

She met her future husband, Joseph Scalia, who was born in Palermo Sicily, at a street festival and again at a wedding. They married in May 1951 at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church.

“She gave her wedding gown to her brand-new new sister-in-law in Sicily so she could be married in a gown,” said her daughter.

“She was kind and listened to people’s stories. She befriended grocery store employees and learned their life stories,” said her daughter. “She just listened and then came back with a gift of meatballs.”

After raising her children, Mrs. Scalia returned to the work. She walked from her home to the office of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, where she began working with William Swisher and stayed for more than two decades. She retired in her mid-80s.

“She was an epic baker and cook,” her daughter said. “She touched many lives with her kindness, care, and generosity, which took many forms, including bringing special meals to shop cashiers and to others no one else knew she had befriended. She brought breakfasts and lunches for work colleagues at the State Attorney’s Office who faced big cases and did not have time to eat.

“She loved working and feeling productive and useful,” her daughter said. “She had a keen work ethic.”

A friend from work, Rosanne Carter, said: “She loved work and her job. When they had a party at the office, she made her meatballs, her lasagna and cassata cake. The word ‘no’ was not in her vocabulary.”

She was an active member of St. Leo the Great parish. She volunteered in the Daughters of Isabella, in the Sodality, and on the St. Anthony and St. Gabriel festival committees and was a mainstay of two annual street festivals.

“She was the chair of the church festival committee,” her daughter said. “She stationed herself at the church and counted receipts and paid the bills.”

She was also active in the Sons of Italy in America, Little Italy Lodge, and supported her husband’s efforts when he launched the neighborhood bocce association.

“She was very independent. She felt she could do anything she put her mind to,” said her son, Dr. Simon V. Scalia of Charleston, South Carolina. “She may not have gone to college, but she was a sophisticated person. She could run a festival and master the logistics. She handled the tables, the trucks and the economics. She had a mind for organization.”

He also said, “Within our family, people looked to her — she was the consiglieri.”

She taught baking breads and cookie classes at the Father Rusty Pandola Learning Center for many years and took pride in introducing her students to the art of Italian cuisine.

She made her cassata and rum cakes for Chiapparelli’s restaurant. Its owners requested that she make the desserts for President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who dined at the restaurant in 1979.

She also enjoyed making the cream puffs to be served March 19 for the Feast of Saint Joseph.

A funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, 227 S. Exeter St. The service will be streamed via YouTube.

In addition to her daughter and son, survivors include another son, Joseph Scalia II of Baltimore; another daughter, Antoinette Tillman of Phoenix in Baltimore County; a sister, Eleanor Stein of Baltimore; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. Her husband of 67 years, a city commercial building inspector, died in 2017.

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