The city's gastronomic capital


ALTHOUGH over in Little Italy the aroma of simmering fettuccine and lasagna does not change, the restaurants where they are served do.

Longtime favorites are forever closing, new ones forever opening. You need a menu:

The oldest restaurant still operating in Baltimore is Velleggia's -- please don't argue this point with me; I know I'm right -- and it is still going strong. The place started out in the early 1930s as "Enrico's Friendly Tavern" and a few years later was renamed as Velleggia's. Chiapparelli's is next oldest. As founder Pasquale ("Patsy") Chiapparelli used to tell it, it opened "the day after the armistice was signed in 1945."

The Roma is no longer in existence, or it would be the oldest. It was started by Emma ("Mama Emma") Maccioca's father, Giovachino Babusei, in 1923. But when Mama died a few years back the family was not able to keep the restaurant going.

Sabatino's, very much open, opened in 1950 when Sabatino Luperino (who had worked as a chef at Velleggia's) joined old friend Joseph Canzani to open the new establishment. "Sabby" became a close friend of Spiro T. Agnew when the latter was a law student at the University of Baltimore. When Agnew became vice president, he often brought his White House entourage (and the prestige of his office) to Sabatino's for dinner. Of course, the arrangement made Sabatino's famous. The night of the day Agnew resigned, he was having dinner at Sabatino's and Joe asked him if there was anything he, Joe, could do. Agnew replied, "Can you use a partner?"

Undoubtedly, over its long history, the most famous of Little Italy's restaurants was Maria's -- long closed. There really was a Maria at Maria's -- Maria Allori, who died only a few years ago after founding, owning and operating the restaurant for almost half a century. She had been a waitress at the Lord Baltimore Hotel (then the Caswell) and, she would explain, "I saw how it worked: good food and famous people and you got it made!"

She used the good-food-and-famous-people formula very successfully. Most of the Hollywood stars visiting Baltimore visited Maria's -- and left an autographed picture on the wall. One is of cowboy star Gene Autry mounted on his horse. "I'll never forget that horse," she once told a visitor. "Autry was in Baltimore to publicize a picture and trotted down here on his horse. He tied that goddamned horse outside on Albemarle Street."

The Italian Kitchen, too, is closed. It was run by ex-boxer Michael Juliano, also known as "Kid Julian." Juliano open the restaurant in 1940 and ran it with his wife (with whom he lived in an apartment above the restaurant) as a small dinner-only restaurant only for the number of customers the two could handle.

Restaurants flourish in Little Italy as in no other 10 square blocks in Baltimore -- one or two may have opened between the time we write this article and the day it is published!

When you walk around in Little Italy, you still see construction. You ask a worker, "What's going on?"

"New restaurant opening."

It is Baltimore history, Italian style.

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