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'It’s a natural fit’: Former Ravens star Ray Lewis partners on restaurant in Little Italy

'It’s a natural fit’: Former Ravens star Ray Lewis partners on restaurant in Little Italy
Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis punches the sky with his new Hall of Fame ring during a game in September 2018 at M&T Bank Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Earlier this week, Ray Lewis, the longtime Ravens linebacker, tweeted: “Your body is a temple. Treat it that way. Workout hard, eat right, recover well.”

For Lewis, the eating part might include a caprese stack of local tomatoes, home-grown basil and fresh mozzarella with a balsamic glaze — among the offerings on the new menu at Lewis’ latest endeavor, an Italian restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy called Lew Gambino’s.

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It’s replacing Ciao Bella, a three-decade staple on High Street, which recently closed for a few days beginning July 15 — the same day as Lewis’ tweet — to remodel for the transition. Lewis, a longtime customer, is partnering with the Gambino family that owns the restaurant.

“I’ve been going to the restaurant for 10 years plus and the relationship just grew,” Lewis said Friday night. “Week after week, after every game and the place started to become a second home. The Gambinos became family. It’s a natural fit.”

Recently, Tony Gambino, who runs the restaurant with his sister Lisa, became ill and asked Lewis whether he would step in and help run the business. Lewis said he didn’t hesitate to say yes. The financial details are being kept private, but Lewis has been helping “refresh” the environment and the menu to include more locally grown food, more salads, vegetables and fish — he always made two orders of each, plus pasta, as a customer.

Lisa Gambino says all the traditional Italian favorites will remain on the menu, but the restaurant will continually add new items, and offer private events.

This is not the first business investment for Lewis, who operated a barbecue restaurant in Canton from 2005 to 2009 and lent his name to a now-defunct bowling alley in Hunt Valley. He’s worked as an ESPN analyst and speaker, among other business ventures. He also runs a boot camp that teaches all comers about diet, exercise, personal development, fellowship and even financial literacy — all the things he said he wished someone taught him when he was young.

Lewis said he didn’t expect to own another restaurant, acknowledging that it’s a tough business.

The Raven, who last played during the 2012 NFL season, has not escaped controversy. Some of his business efforts have ended up in litigation.

In 2000, Lewis was initially charged in a double murder outside an Atlanta nightclub on Super Bowl Sunday. He struck a deal to testify against two companions with him that night; both of whom were later acquitted. Lewis had testified that one of the men had bought knives the day before. Lewis pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and received one year of probation and was fined $250,000 by the league.

Lewis rehabilitated his reputation in the following years and has become something of a favorite son of Baltimore. He’s become a sought-after speaker and endorser, and was even given a parade in Baltimore.

Then in 2017, tens of thousands of people signed a petition calling for his statue at M&T Bank Stadium to be removed after Lewis joined current team members in kneeling during the national anthem in response to President Donald Trump’s comments calling on owners to fire players who didn’t stand.

Lewis later said he was praying, not protesting.

Lisa Gambino said the family is thankful for Lewis’ involvement, and that the family restaurant will be around for third generation and for the community. She said they expect people to continue enjoying authentic Northern and Southern Italian cuisine, but that the “rebranding” would help the place to keep up with the times.

Little Italy is nestled between the tourist-friendly Inner Harbor and the upscale neighborhood of Harbor East. It’s long been a destination for locals and visitors, as well as a tight-knit community, where people play bocce, put on festivals and host movie nights.

“By streamlining our look and feel, and offering our customer’s favorite dishes while adding new entrees and signature drinks, we are evolving with the times to give our customers what they want,” said Tony Gambino in a statement. “Ray has been a faithful customer and friend for over ten years and has decided to further his involvement by becoming a partner. We couldn’t be more excited.”

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A ribbon cutting is set for Aug. 26 with invited guests including “local sports figures, politicians and other dignitaries.” The restaurant will be open to the public Aug. 27.

No one from Little Italy’s neighborhood, restaurant or promotional associations could be reached Friday.

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