The Little Italy Open Air Film Fest, a beloved Baltimore tradition since 1999, will be on hiatus for the summer of 2018, organizers have announced. But they hope that a new and improved festival will return in 2019.
"Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the festival," said Mike Castino, vice-president of the Little Italy Lodge of the Order Sons of Italy, an Italian heritage organization that recently resumed responsibility for running the event. "We are committed to doing what we need to do to get the film festival together for next year. It's too big and too important to this neighborhood to just let it die."
In 1999, someone had the bright idea of projecting films onto the empty wall of Ciao Bella Restaurant at 236 S. High St. from John Pente's bedroom window. Word got out, and crowds began to gather. People brought their own lawn chairs and placed them in a parking lot owned by the adjacent Da Mimmo Italian restaurant. Nearby restaurants began handing out such free treats as popcorn and cannoli. The New York Times wrote about the festival, which featured family-friendly classics with Italian themes, and a segment appeared on CNN.
The festival became an annual tradition, kicking off each year with a showing of "Moonstruck," the 1987 romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicholas Cage.
"Baltimore is a collection of neighborhoods, and the Little Italy Film Fest is one of the things that gives Baltimore that small-town feel," said Debbie Dorsey, director of the film office for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "Now, the city has other outdoor film series in the summer, but I think the Little Italy festival was the first. I hope they are able to bring it back. People are going to miss it."
The festival was organized by the Original Little Italy Restaurant Association, in which Da Mimmo's owner Mary Ann Cricchio played a key role.
Cricchio couldn't be reached immediately for comment. But in April she told The Sun that she approached her fellow organizers and asked them to find a new location to hold future film festivals. Cricchio has become involved in organizing tours of Italy and as a result, no longer spends her summers in Baltimore.
"I tried for a few years to run it from 5,000 miles away, but it just didn't work," she said.
Castino said the Sons of Italy were asked earlier this spring if they would consider running the festival. As a film buff and a neighborhood booster, he was eager to help. Several alternative locations were proposed, Castino said, including a Stratford University parking lot. But a series of pragmatic problems — a complicated site selection process, the necessity of obtaining liability insurance — forced him to decide reluctantly that he simply didn't have enough time to put together a film festival for this summer.
"There was a really, really short window of time and I concluded I couldn't get it done properly," he said. "The businessman in me wouldn't let me do it halfway. But I want people to know that we'll be back bigger and stronger than ever for 2019."
Ciao Bella owner Tony Gambino certainly hopes so.
"God knows the city needs reasons to bring people from the county downtown," he said. "The film festival did that. It brought kids, families who enjoyed the outdoor seating and the music. All the restaurants benefited, even the ones that weren't nearby. What the festival did was to help keep this neighborhood alive."