Laughs, characters, good food in Bel Air

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eat a little," says Mary Broccolo Scoppa, who is 85 years old and overseeing dinner while simultaneously critiquing the Orioles-Angels game on a nearby TV screen.

"I'm stuffed," I explain, owing to previous helpings of crab toast (crab meat atop garlic bread with mozzarella cheese dipped in a spicy sauce), and a mix of clams and shrimp and scallops to make your taste buds sing Pucciniesque arias, and tenderest chicken, and I

"He's not eating?" says Rose Broccolo Needleman, Mary's daughter, approaching with maternal concern.

"No, it's not that," I explain.

"And what's with this Geronimo Berroa?" says Mary, turning back to the ballgame. "I don't like the way he moves that bat back and forth so much. Why doesn't he relax?"

"I'm just stuffed," I explain to Rose, while Berroa lunges at a low curve. "The chicken, the seafood I"

"So you'll wash it down," explains Rose, "with a little veal."

These are my kind of people. This is Broccolo's Restaurant in Bel Air, on Tollgate Road maybe 50 yards off Belair Road in Harford County, but it feels like East Baltimore's been transplanted here.

And why not? One night last January, Rose Broccolo Needleman, Cass DeFelice Buckley and Kathleen Ann Brady ("I'm a half-breed," she says, "but there's Italian in there somewhere.") dropped in here after bowling, which is a passion that goes back to Highlandtown and Dundalk, and it binds the three of them over the years.

The restaurant-bar was still called the Lion's Head last winter, and, as they're cooling off after bowling, somebody mentions it's for sale. Why don't we buy it, somebody says. Ha, ha, somebody else says. But, when the laughter dies, they start to wonder: Why not? Haven't we worked for Italian restaurants? Don't we know how to make Italian food?

And not only that: What comes from them all is a sense of life and warmth, born out of yeasty, energetic East Baltimore that says, Life's a gamble. Let's take our best shot.

Take the time Kathleen got married. The first time, that is. Kathleen, 42, grew up in Dundalk, went to Towson State University where she played three sports, and the night before her wedding, she gets a thing for the trombone player in that venerable Baltimore band, The Admirals.

"So the trombone player calls my mother," Kathleen remembers, "and he says, 'I'm going on the road tomorrow. Kathleen's going with me.' My mother says, 'Oh, no, she ain't, she's getting married tomorrow. If she wants a divorce the next day, that's her problem. But she's getting married tomorrow.'"

A marriage or so later, Kathleen's up in Atlantic City, N.J., for an evening of blackjack. She likes the look of the pit boss. She commences to flirt for, as she recalls, "the next 13 hours."

"Finally," she remembers, "he says to me, 'How about a date? I got a bowling tournament to go to in Lebanon, Pa.' Well, naturally, I like the bowling, so I say to him, 'Separate rooms?' He says, 'Sure.' I say, 'Then, forget it. If we're not in the same room, then I'm not going.'"

Six months later, she and Mike were married, and he's given up Atlantic City to work at Broccolo's now, where he's in the kitchen with the chef, Anthony Covelli, who came here from Calabria, Italy, and now laughs, "I must be, how you say, crazy to come here."

Then there's Rose Broccolo Needleman, 62. The quiet one, everybody says.

"Yeah, quiet," says her mother, Mary Broccolo, glancing away from the Orioles' telecast, where she's no longer criticizing Berroa's batting style but explaining that she's not too happy with Davey Johnson's reluctance to let Jeffrey Hammonds steal second against a guy throwing maybe 59 mph.

Mary still remembers the day the police came for Rose. Rose was maybe 15. They were living in Little Italy, it's Easter Sunday and Mary's making ravioli when the police arrive.

"You have a daughter named Rose?"

"Yes," says Mary, heart sinking. "Why?"

"She was up the corner shooting dice," the cop says. "The others ran off. She stayed to collect the money."

"Which makes sense," says Cass DeFelice Buckley, 63. She and Rose have been friends for about 40 years, or roughly the time they've each been married. Rose married Jake Needleman; Cass married Jack Buckley. Both husbands have been playing in local bands - the High Fives, the Versatiles, the Punchanellos - for years.

Also, Cass and Jack used to own Buckley's Bar in Highlandtown. They still remember the night a guy walks in looped and looking to get loopier.

"Gimme a beer and a shot," he says.

"I can't serve you a drink," Jack says.

So the guy leaves, wanders down an alley and comes back into the bar - through its side door. Makes the same request. Jack turns him down again. The guy leaves. Stumbles back down the alley and wanders back through the front door. "Beer and a shot," he says. "Can't," Jack says. Now the guy looks at Jack and finally realizes he keeps seeing the same face.

"What is this?" he says. "You own every bar in the neighborhood?"

So this is the kind of background these three ladies bring to Broccolo's in Bel Air - great laughter, great memories, great characters. And, never to be minimized, great food.

Pub Date: 8/21/97

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