As Baltimore's Italian markets dwindle, 105-year-old DiPasquale's still thrives

They come for the hearty subs, tempting slabs of lasagna and Sicilian rice balls. Parking’s a mess, but a two-block walk whets one’s appetite. And so what if, at lunch, the serpentine ordering line spills out the front door? More time to soak in the sights and smells of DiPasquale’s Italian Marketplace in Highlandtown. So say its regulars.

Who’s to argue? DiPasquale’s has earned public kudos. In 2007, The Food Network saluted it on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Two years later, its silky crab cakes, laced with lemon and mascarpone cheese, were featured on Maryland Public Television’s “Eatin Crabcakes: The Best I Ever Had.”


On Sunday, DiPasquale’s will host the 16th annual Highlandtown Wine Festival at the corner of Claremont and Conkling Streets, with music, crafts and its signature food.

Now in its second century, DiPasquale’s thrives among the city’s shrinking number of old-world deli/groceries, which includes Trinacria (Paca Street) and Pastore’s (Towson). In 2017, DiPasquale’s opened a second store, in Harborview; it also owns Mastellone’s, on Harford Road. (Ceriello closed in mid-April).


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That’s a far cry from the dozens of Italian marketplaces that once peppered Baltimore neighborhoods, said Lou Mazzulli, president of the Little Italy Business Association.

“At their peak in the 1950s, there were 35 to 40 specialty places downtown,” said Mazzulli, 75. “After that their Italian clientele, mostly neighborhood people, began moving to the counties where suburban [groceries] started carrying more Italian foods, eliminating the need to go downtown to buy them.

“But the marketplaces that still survive are financially sound — and because there are so few of them, people who want to stick to the old world [foodstuffs] will still go there.”

Tucked away in a block of row homes, on Gough Street, the Highlandtown locale serves an eclectic clientele, from CEOs to construction workers. DiPasquale’s has fed chef Lidia Bastianich (host of “Lidia’s Italy” on PBS), former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski and then-Ravens starting quarterback Joe Flacco.

Flacco, tight end Dennis Pitta and their wives had chicken parmigiana on Jan. 5, 2013 — the day before the start of the team’s playoff run to the Super Bowl, Joe DiPasquale said. Their meal made the owner nervous:

“All that night I worried that I’d wake up to read, ‘Flacco out with stomach flu.’ ”

Instead, Flacco passed for two touchdowns, one to Pitta, in a 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

DiPasquale, 59, and his wife, Sabrina, have run the business for much of the last 31 years, since it moved one block from Claremont Street where his grandfather, Luigi DiPasquale, had opened an Italian grocery — in a German neighborhood — in 1914.

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“He knew Italian families were coming [from Europe],” Joe DiPasquale said. “He heard the rumblings.”

The store relocated in 1988, to a place with a storied past. It was first the site of a construction firm — which, around 1920, employed a young Al Capone as bookkeeper — then a tire company and, finally, a hardware store before Louis DiPasquale, Jr., who’d learned the nuts and bolts of the food business from his dad, moved in.

“It was a full grocery at first, with toilet paper and detergents in the windows,” Joe DiPasquale said. Within a year, the store became a specialty market, selling imported foods and a few homemade sandwiches on the side. When a customer asked to sit and eat, the owner brought out one small table and chair. Then a second, and a third.

Now the place seats 40 and serves up a slew of subs, soups, salads and specials. Two-hundred loaves of rustic Italian bread rise from the ovens every day, along with about 50 pizzas. Sixteen kinds of international olives beckon from behind the glass deli case, flanked by pasta salads, roasted vegetables and the conical arancini, the Guy Fieri favorite that helped put DiPasquale’s on the map 12 years ago.


“When [The Food Network’s] Fieri left here that day, he said, ‘Get ready, this is going to change your lives,’ ” Joe DiPasquale said. “He was right — it changed everything.”

Theretofore a hidden gem, DiPasquale’s quickly gained national acclaim.

“People from all over the country called friends here and asked, ‘Have you ever heard of this place?’ while others who lived three blocks away had no idea we were here,” the owner said.

Most days, DiPasquale bustles about, overseeing the kitchen, scribbling orders and greeting customers, some of whom speak “a blend of Italian dialects mixed with American Highlandtown that only I can understand,” he said. The shop is a magnet for college students, many from New York and New Jersey, who divulge their roots when they order.

Louis DiPasquale, 95, grocery store owner and businessman, died Thursday

“They ask for ‘the chicken cutlet with peppahs,’ ” said DiPasquale, who named that sandwich “The Jersey Boy.”

“It’s a good feeling to please that [young] crowd, because they come from a place where the food brings back memories,” he said. “It reminds them of home.”

Or it conjures up trips to the old country.

“I’ve eaten my way through Italy, and this chicken gnocci soup is delicious,” said Donna Smyth, of Houston, Texas. She shared a table with her son, Brian Smyth, who lives in Highlandtown and eats here often.

“Nothing goes home in a doggie bag,” he said.

Nearby, another first-time customer, Romeo Santos, polished off the last of a “Real Italian,” a crazy-quilt sub stuffed with salami, peppered ham, mortadella, capicola and provolone cheese with spices.

“Phenomenal,” said Santos, a real estate agent from Annapolis. “I can taste all the different meats, the bread is awesome, and the peppers don’t blow you away. I can still feel the roof of my mouth.”

At the counter, Jason Brenner mulled the menu. A microscope salesman from New Market, he settled on his go-to lunch, a cheese steak sub.

“It’s huge,” Brenner said of the meal. “My mother always told me, ‘Don’t eat anything bigger than your head.’ I’m glad I didn’t listen.”

A vegan himself, DiPasquale flits from oven to oven, sampling roasted vegetable medleys and nibbling on fresh-made pastas.

“I love prosciutto but, two years ago, i gave up meat for Lent,” he said. “Then I saw my doctor who told me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.’ ”

The job is intense, he said — another reason, perhaps, for the dearth of such marketplaces.

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“It’s a grind, a commitment,” said DiPasquale, of Towson. “People get out of the business so as not to sacrifice their lives. But we are a lot of things to a lot of people. Women like to buy wine here without having to go to a liquor store; old-timers show up after attending a funeral up the street.”

Others, like “Mr. Harry,” a 97-year-old who lived nearby, came regularly for a cheese steak sub until moving to a nursing home six months ago. And new mothers have been known to make DiPasquale’s their first stop after leaving the hospital.

“They craved ‘The Real Italian’ but couldn’t eat it while pregnant,” the owner said. “So they came in for one on their way home with the baby.”


Will DiPasquale’s hang on for the next generation?


“There are no big margins in this industry but, at the same time, recessions don’t affect us,” he said. “People who usually buy a pound of prosciutto will, in down times, buy two pounds of ham. Recessions are also when we get the corporate crowds; instead of going to Ruth’s Chris Steak House, they come to us to entertain.

“We’re here, no matter what the problem is.”

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