Gino's is back — but not in its hometown

After a long absence, Gino's, the beloved Baltimore-born hamburger chain, is back — but not in its hometown. At least not yet.

Gino's Burgers & Chicken, as it's now known, celebrated the grand opening last weekend in King of Prussia, Pa., of what its developers intend to be the anchor store of a relaunched franchise.

Established under the name Gino's in 1959 and named for its co-founder, the Baltimore Colt Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, Gino's occupies in the hearts and stomachs of many Baltimoreans the same sentimental slot that Barry Levinson had for his beloved Hilltop Diner. The last Gino's, located in Pasadena and owned independently, closed in 1991.

Stacey Brown, producer for "The Mark Viviano Show," heard of the restaurant's comeback Monday when a caller to the show mentioned having gone to the grand opening in Pennsylvania.

She called her dad on the way home from the station.

"I said, 'Dad, guess what? Gino's is back!'" There was no hiding the excitement in his voice when he asked when it might be coming to Baltimore, she said. And then he starting reminiscing about the Colts.

Given this sentimental attachment, the idea that Gino's would be revived not in Baltimore but near Philadelphia is yet another indignity to a Baltimorean like Vickie Milton, who remembers that on game days, her mother would rush out at halftime, drive the five minutes up Mountain Road and come back in time for the start of the third quarter with a giant bucket of chicken — still hot.

Milton is stung that Gino's has chosen Pennsylvania for its comeback.

"Once again, Baltimore had been dissed," she sighs.

The opening in King of Prussia was a practical matter, according to Tom Romano, the former Gino's executive who engineered the revival and is now CEO of Gino's Burgers & Chicken. Gino's may have been founded in Baltimore, but the company relocated its headquarters to King of Prussia before it was acquired (and mostly absorbed) by the Marriott Corp. in 1982.

After the purchase of Gino's, Marchetti, now 83, remained in the King of Prussia area, as did many of the company's executives, including Romano, who was Gino's vice president and chief operating officer at the time of its acquisition.

Romano has good news for Baltimoreans, though. He said he has a "very serious franchise prospect in Baltimore, people who are die-hard Baltimore fans and who have the money." He predicts that a Gino's Burgers & Chicken will open in Baltimore "within the next 12 months."

Some Baltimoreans aren't waiting.

"The thing that surprised me most about the opening," Marchetti says, "was how many people joined us from Baltimore. They came from Ocean City and Aberdeen."

Among the travelers was Kathy Conrad. Mere hours after she caught wind that a Gino's had opened in Pennsylvania, Conrad and her husband were in the car, headed northeast. After a two-hour ride Saturday, she walked right in and placed the order she had placed so many times before: a Gino's Giant and a Coke.

"I inhaled it like I hadn't eaten in days," says the 45-year-old from Northeast Baltimore. "That was the most awesome trip in the world. Disneyland wouldn't even have outdid that one. That was the highlight of my life — having Gino's back, just for a day."

It tasted just as she remembered, the burger highlighted by that secret of mysterious mayonnaise-y, ketchup-y, irreplaceable goodness. "It hadn't changed at all," Conrad says, "though they could stand to put a little more sauce on it."

Memory is funny — the new Gino Giant is not the same as it was. The middle slice of roll is gone, and today's sandwich has double the amount of meat. Still the same, though, is the special Gino Giant sauce, made according to the recipe Marchetti developed in 1965.

Another traveler to this weekend's opening was Marchetti's championship teammate Art Donovan.

"Everything was delicious," Donovan says. "They got a great hamburger, bigger and juicier than the old Gino Giant. The fries were delicious. And I had the best milkshake I ever tasted — it's a real solid drink.

"I brought five hamburgers home and ate them all, over two nights, with some Schlitz."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jill Rosen and Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.

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