Little Italy eateries win, place, show Preakness weekend draws big business


A thousand pounds of pasta; 225 gallons of red sauce; 150 pounds of veal. Such is the gastronomic toll expected at just one of Little Italy's two dozen eateries this weekend, one of the busiest yet in a bustling tourist season.

"There's tiramisu to make. There's cannoli cream to make. And the bread," says Nick Chiapparelli, chef at his family's restaurant for 50 years. "How much bread do we make?"

Three thousand loaves.

"This," he says, "is a blessing."

Preakness weekend is strong every year in Little Italy, and spring is the height of the tourist season. But this weekend adds the extra bonus of three Orioles games, Loyola College's graduation and a national beer festival.

Together, they are bringing tens of thousands of tourists into Baltimore. For their drinking and dining needs, many are seeking out Little Italy, the ethnic-enclave-turned-restaurant-colony just east of the Inner Harbor.

Some diners are regulars such as Charlie Gagliano of Perry Hall and Jennifer Fischer of Dundalk, who like to drive in from the Baltimore County suburbs at least once a week.

"I love the atmosphere," says Gagliano. "It's relaxing. It's laid-back. I feel really safe."

Others, such as Rick and Nancy Bettinger, come to Little Italy for a special event. They drove down from Harrisburg, Pa., last night to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary at Da Mimmo restaurant.

"There's no restaurants in Pennsylvania," says Rick Bettinger.

"Not like this," his wife quickly adds.

The tourist dollars end up in the pockets of restaurateurs, waiters, cooks, valet parkers and wandering rose salesman Ghazi Almomani, a native of Jordan who moved to Little Italy six years ago.

Few of the first-generation Italian families that gave Little Italy its name remain.

But Almomani proves the American dream still thrives by making a living wage on just two shifts -- Friday and Saturday nights -- each week.

"It's a good business," he says. "I make $700, $800 in two days. That's it."

The hours are far less kind for the owners and managers of restaurants.

Rocco Gargano, owner and chef of Rocco's Capriccio, is starting work at 8 a.m. -- three hours earlier than usual -- this weekend to prepare for the crowds. He doesn't finish until 17 hours later, at 1 a.m.

"Little Italy is going to be hopping," he says shortly before the dinner rush hits. "This is the place to be."

For this weekend, Chiapparelli's has eight groups booked -- from wedding rehearsal dinners to Preakness parties -- filling part of the restaurant even before the walk-in crowd begins to arrive about 6 p.m.

Two hours later, crowds are overflowing from several restaurants, swelling the narrow lanes of High, Fawn and Stiles streets with pedestrians and cars.

At Da Mimmo, chef Mimmo Cricchio began the weekend with a 350-pound slab of swordfish in the refrigerator. That's in addition to the 80 pounds of lobster tail, 90 pounds of shrimp and 36 pounds of salmon.

And the veal? A cool 450 pounds was ready for cooking.

The 50-person staff had to forget about relaxing on May's first splendid weekend.

"Saturday night," says manager Masood Masoodi, "nobody has a day off."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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