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Sign of contention in Little Italy Picture: Restaurateurs say it would beautify the area, but residents say it could be the beginning of billboard infestation.


A Jacuzzi-sized bowl of linguine with white clam sauce is at the center of a heated zoning fight in Little Italy.

The pasta isn't the problem. It's the portion, and the "table" on which it would sit -- a lighted sign, 15 by 20 feet, with a salad, olive oil, red wine and ads for 14 local restaurants, proposed for the side of Ciao Bella restaurant on South High Street.

The sponsoring restaurant owners say it's a mural and would beautify the area. Community opponents say it's a billboard that could one day end up advertising hamburger chains.

This much is clear: Arguments on the issue scheduled for tomorrow before Baltimore's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals will probably make the clams wish they could close their shells.

It is the talk of Little Italy.

"I think it is a very lovely poster, or whatever you want to call it -- most appetizing, to say the least," says Nazzareno F. Velleggia, owner of the restaurant on East Pratt Street that bears his family's name. "We get along with 80 percent of the people here. There is just a really small group that is trying to make a power play."

Not so, say members of the Little Italy Owners and Residents Association. This is about making sure the neighborhood does not become billboard-infested.

"We would love a beautiful mural, but I am afraid the door is opening to McDonald's going on that wall," said Gia Blatterman, a hairstylist who served for eight years on the zoning appeals board.

The battle highlights tensions between restaurateurs and residents in one of Baltimore's oldest neighborhoods and favorite tourist havens. From time to time, conflicts here roll to a boil over issues such as parking, noise and, once, even boccie balls.

"They forget the neighborhood is commercial. It's really a commercial neighborhood with residents in it," said Anthony Gambino, owner of Ciao Bella.

To which Raymond T. Charlton Sr., president of LIORA, fired back: "The residents are every bit as important as the restaurants are. We sit out on the street and people like to come and talk to us. We're part of the atmosphere that creates the atmosphere for the restaurants."

Mural or billboard?

Charlton's home on Albemarle Street sits one block from the site of the proposed sign. He can't see it from his house, but worries about the precedent it might set for the neighborhood. He sits in his living room, thumbing though Webster's New World Dictionary for the definitions of "mural" and "billboard."

The two words will be integral to the zoning arguments.

If the picture is deemed a billboard, it could be more difficult to get the blessing of the zoning appeals board. The content on a billboard can be changed at any time without further zoning approval, said Ben Neil, chairman of the five-member board. That opens the door for any advertisement if the restaurants decide to abandon it, which is what worries community residents.

If the board can be convinced that the picture is permanent -- as a mural would be -- the board could be more likely to approve it, Neil said. Still, the picture faces hurdles because of its nature as an advertisement.

Charlton bases his fight on Webster's. The dictionary says that a billboard is a signboard, "usually outdoors, for advertising posters." A mural is "a picture, [especially] a large one, painted directly on a wall."

What the restaurant owners want would not be painted on the wall -- not painted at all. It's a photograph of food with logos of the restaurants attached to a board hung on the wall, Charlton says.

The restaurant owners have a more liberal view than Webster's.

"The picture is a picture that is going to be painted on, isn't it? With glue or whatever else," Velleggia said.

Project under way

Asked why the sponsors did not arrange to paint their scene directly on the wall, Velleggia responded: "We didn't think on brick it would work well."

Half of the $10,000 project is under way. Restaurant owners say they put up the white mounting board this summer after they got approval -- a business card signed by a building inspector, with ++ "OK" written on the back.

Charlton inquired about the project and got a stop-work order in August. Since then, the mounting board has hung blank on the wall like a drive-in movie screen.

'I'm still here'

The wall faces two homes on Stiles Street. The resident of one, John Pente, supports the project. The other does not relish the idea of linguine looming outside his windows, but he said he is not going to fight the proposal.

"I learned a long time ago that I live in the middle of a circus," said Jude Pasquariello, a school administrator who grew up in the house. "You either come to terms with it or you move. I'm still here."

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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