When Brendon Hudson first told his grandfather he would be opening another restaurant, Frank Velleggia Sr. cautioned him against moving too quickly. Hudson and his partner had just opened Allora, a 20-seat Mt. Vernon restaurant serving Roman cuisine, in the summer of 2021.
But then Hudson revealed the twist in his plan: The restaurant he was going to open — or in this case, reopen — was Velleggia’s, which his grandfather had inherited from Hudson’s great grandparents and run for nearly 50 years before selling it in 2005. It was one of Little Italy’s most iconic and longest-running dining spots before it eventually closed in 2008.
“I was excited for him,” Velleggia said, “as long as I didn’t have to be working.”
He’ll be a guest when a new edition of Velleggia’s debuts inside of Federal Hill’s Cross Street Market in an invitation-only Saturday evening preview party. Hudson and partner David Monteagudo have planned a Nov. 11 grand opening for the public. They’ll start accepting reservations for the restaurant next week.
The opening represents a new chapter for a Baltimore culinary landmark, and a passing of the torch to a new generation in one of Little Italy’s established restaurant families. Though the new iteration of Velleggia’s will open in a different neighborhood, Hudson and Monteagudo plan to preserve some of its touchstones, from classic dishes like veal saltimbocca to the show of hospitality that Hudson witnessed as a child following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“It’s a type of elevated Italian cuisine that Federal Hill has never seen,” said Arsh Mirmiran, a partner at Caves Valley Partners, Velleggia’s new landlord at Cross Street Market. “It was a no-brainer to get the deal done.”
Passing the torch
Erstwhile patrons of Vellegia’s might remember a much younger version of Hudson from his days working in the former Pratt Street restaurant. At 9 years old, he would stand in as the dining room’s host, seating guests at all the wrong tables.
“I walked around like I owned the place,” Hudson said.
As a preteen, he moved into the kitchen, mixing salad in massive bowls that seemed impossibly large compared to his arms. One of his most vivid memories was made the day his grandfather decided it was time for him to learn how to clean squid for a calamari dish. The stomach-churning process involves using a thumb to push the sea creature inside out and clear its guts.
“I said, ‘Brendon, that’s part of the job, you have to do it,’” Velleggia recalled. “He said, ‘OK, but do I have to do it again?’”
Calamari pasta will be on the menu at the new Velleggia’s, though you won’t find Hudson doing the squid prep work, if he can help it.
From Little Italy to the CIA
Hudson’s precocious days in the Velleggia’s dining room and kitchen presaged a career in the restaurant industry.
“From the time he was very little, he always had an interest in cooking and culinary arts,” Velleggia said.
Hudson turned that affinity into a degree from the Culinary Institute of America (or CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, where he met Monteagudo. Back in Baltimore, Hudson opened Liliahna, a catering service for weddings and other events. Then, last year, he teamed up with Monteagudo to open the intimate Allora, which already has generated a lot of buzz.
The pair plan to incorporate some pasta dishes from Allora onto the menu at Velleggia’s, including cacio e pepe, a creamy, simple Roman dish combining spaghetti, butter, salt and pepper, and parmigiano reggiano cheese. The appetizer list will feature some favorite Allora starters, like marinated olives, chewy Lupini beans and blistered Shishito peppers.
Many of the other dishes, though, will be pure Velleggia’s. Back in the era when each Little Italy restaurant was known for a particular specialty, Velleggia’s was known for its veal and seafood dishes. The restaurant will revive signature plates like the Saltimbocca Alla Romana, a braised veal dish topped with prosciutto, mozzarella and Marsala wine. The name, saltimbocca, translates to “jumps into your mouth.”
There also will be a Veal Francaise, breaded meat cooked in a white wine sauce.
“My grandfather said if you don’t put that on the menu, don’t open,” Hudson said.
For an after-dinner drink, Hudson made sure to offer Cappuccino Al Enrico, a coffee topped with amaretto and whipped cream and named for the restaurant’s founder, his great-grandfather Enrico Velleggia.
Humble origins to celebrity hangout
Enrico, an immigrant from Italy’s western coast, opened Enrico’s Friendly Tavern in the 1930s. The modest 30-seat restaurant featured cocktails from Enrico and cooking by his wife, Maria, who was known as Little Italy’s “Pasta Mama” on account of her penchant for making pasta by hand at a time when the practice wasn’t common in the United States.
Over the years, the small tavern grew, and eventually changed its name to Velleggia’s, as the family bought up adjacent property. Frank Velleggia Sr. took over the business in 1960 and, by its heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, it featured a lounge and multiple dining rooms decorated by Rita St. Clair, a famed Baltimore interior designer.
Velleggia’s hosted a long list of celebrities, from Rat Pack crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to local sports legends like Johnny Unitas and Cal Ripken. Maria Velleggia was friends with the actress Mae West, who would ask to be whisked away to the restaurant for a meal after her performances in the region.
It also was known as a special occasion spot for families throughout the Baltimore area.
“Everyone had their family Italian restaurant, and mine was Velleggia’s,” said Mirmiran, the developer.
That nostalgic appeal was part of the allure of signing a deal to bring the restaurant back inside Cross Street Market, he said.
A wider appeal for Cross Street Market
Mirmiran hopes Velleggia’s will attract new customers to the market, which typically draws business from Federal Hill and surrounding neighborhoods.
“I think that Velleggia’s will have a wider draw than the market itself,” he said. “It will bring people to the market who might not have necessarily come to the market.”
Restaurants within markets are becoming more common, Mirmiran said. Though the bulk of Cross Street Market’s businesses are run from smaller vendor stalls, the market already is home to another anchor restaurant, Atlas Restaurant Group’s seafood spot Watershed, which opened last year at the building’s Charles Street entrance.
Velleggia’s takes over the former Rooster + Hen grocery space, one of the market’s larger footprints. And though it’s technically inside the market, Hudson and Monteagudo have taken steps to make the dining room feel distinct, soundproofing the space and installing curtains on windows that look out on the market’s corridor.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re in a market when you’re in here,” Hudson said.
The decor references the restaurant’s past, with vintage furniture gifted from family or purchased online, and photographs of the old Velleggia’s. On one wall, there’s a display of oyster plates from the collection of Annette Velleggia, Hudson’s grandmother. And on an easel by the entrance, there’s a vintage Velleggia’s menu from the days when a plate of lasagna would only set you back $4.95 and linguini with lobster, clams and shrimp cost just $11.25.
The restaurant does feature new touches, like a candy-apple red, rolling charcuterie slicer for tableside cuts of prosciutto, salami, sopressata and mortadella (Velleggia’s will also offer Iberico ham, a Spanish dried meat that’s a favorite of both Hudson’s and Monteagudo’s). And in the back, there will be a refrigerator case and shelves stocked with beers, wine and canned cocktails for carryout.
As opening day nears, Hudson and Monteagudo say they can feel the weight of the Velleggia’s legacy on their shoulders. Enthusiastic former customers already have been approaching them in public with memories of Velleggia’s and calling Allora to ask whether they can make reservations for the new spot.
“That’s the scariest part, because now you have to live up to why people are talking about it, and that’s even harder,” Monteagudo said. “You have to impress everybody.”
“It’s equal parts anxiety and equal parts excitement for me,” Hudson said, “because you hear stories, and it feels like a lot to live up to.”