It's a mild Friday evening in Baltimore. The air is as clear and gleaming as a dry white wine, and as the sun settles into the reddish shadows of twilight, two men on a Little Italy street corner jabber in Italian-accented English.
" 'La Vita e Bella!' " cries the first, his hands moving madly. " 'Life is Beautiful.' You know it, no? With Roberto Benigni? So funny, so moving. You must see this film!"
The second, an older gent in chef's attire, hasn't had the pleasure yet, but he nods thoughtfully. He will.
"We are paesani," explains the first man, holding up intertwined fingers. "Do you know the word paesani? This man grew up with my father in Sicily. We are lifelong friends. Like family."
Just up the street, another film is about to unreel on an outdoor screen, the latest chapter in a new summer tradition: the Little Italy Open-Air Film Festival. Tonight, the fest will feature not Benigni but Cher, in "Moonstruck," and throngs of strangers will overflow the intimate, close-knit neighborhood's restaurants and streets. But Nick Vaccaro's sentiments on friendship and family still seem apt.
Here, on Friday evenings in a makeshift piazza at the corner of High and Stiles streets, you don't have to be Sicilian, even Italian, to feel part of the family. Hundreds, at times thousands, converge to spread picnic blankets, lean back in lawn chairs and watch movies al fresco -- film fans turning friends as surely as twilight turns to a canopy of stars.
The Mayor of Little Italy
Roland Keh is everywhere tonight. The owner of Amicci's restaurant and a member of the Little Italy Restaurant Association, which co-sponsors the film series with the Senator Theater, Keh likes to mingle with the spectators as they gather. He knows the people themselves are as interesting as the Italian-themed films, and like a garrulous cousin, he seems to want you to meet each one.
"Talked to Mr. John yet?" he says. "Incredible man. We call him the Mayor of Little Italy. We wouldn't have a series without him."
John Pente is over there on his bench, the one right against the rowhouse he's lived in for all his 90 years. Before he even hears your name, he's on his feet, smiling and pumping your hand, and soon you're on a guided tour of the three-story home that houses the projector from which the films are shown.
"Just follow the old man," he hollers.
As he takes you up two flights of stairs, you hear of family and food. John's granddad came to Little Italy in 1898; more than a century later, the so-called Mayor has never left. He cooks a family dinner every other Sunday, feeding up to 16 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His 86-year-old sister lives next door and often cooks for him, handing his dinner through a rear window. "Best food in the world comes right through there," he says.
He shows you bedrooms, a den, the landing with the picture of him and Gov. Parris Glendening shaking hands. At length you reach the main attraction, the top-floor bedroom turned projection booth. In a room done up in goldenrod hues, the contraption the Senator lends to the series nearly scrapes the seven-foot ceiling.
Pente points out his window, across Stiles, across the parking lot where most of the crowd will sit, to the great white billboard turned movie screen on the side of Ciao Bella restaurant. It's only 5:45, but the street is closed, the folding chairs are going up and folks from all over Baltimore have started to gather.
"Wait till the band starts playing," Pente says with a dreamy smile. "It brings the whole neighborhood to life."
The driving power
You're told to meet Mary Ann Cricchio, the blond-haired dynamo behind the festival, and there she is in the street, shaking hands and chatting -- half in Italian, half in English -- with guests and passers-by.
"Jim Palmer just called!" she says, speaking of the ex-Orioles pitching star. "He said, 'What's the film tonight?' I said, 'Moonstruck.' He said, 'La luna, Mary Ann! La bella luna! I'll be there!"
Cricchio, co-owner of DaMimmo restaurant and president of the restaurant association, says Palmer saved their business. He came in one lonely, rainy night shortly after they opened several years ago and loved the food and the atmosphere so much he started telling his friends. DaMimmo has since become one of the most popular spots in Little Italy. It's their parking lot that serves as improvised piazza each Friday night.
Originally, says Cricchio, the screen on Ciao Bella was meant to be a billboard celebrating the neighborhood's restaurants. But the idea drew fire, so the restaurant association had to dream up another use. Guido de Franco, owner of Caesar's Den across the street, pitched the movie-screen idea as a joke. But Cricchio had visited Sicily the year before and seen the kind of open-air cinemas celebrated in the film "Cinema Paradiso." She took her brainstorm to Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator, and the plan developed from there.
At 6:15 -- still nearly three hours before the movie -- visitors have already filled a third of the seats. Cricchio, eyeing the crowd, carries on several chats at once, with a young girl, a shawled old woman, and two friendly cops on the beat. Everybody leaves smiling.
She points toward the plywood board on the wall. "As a billboard it divided the community," she says. "But once it was a movie screen, it drew us together."
Keh points to a woman settling into a third-row seat. He's never spoken to her, but he says she's a regular.
"Every week she's here," he says. "She eats at a different restaurant each time, then goes to the movie." And as the two-man, pre-feature band, Aldo and the Composers, swings into a snappy version of "Just a Gigolo," Gail Casale is pleased to talk about what keeps drawing her back.
"The community," she says. "The atmosphere. The people. And the films -- they've been wonderful." The gray-haired Severn native especially enjoys the short films shown before the main attractions. "They're very offbeat," she says. "The old cartoons, the short features. You don't see those in ordinary movie houses."
At 7:15, as the Composers unfurl a bright version of "Mambo No. 5" -- which gets a few filmgoers up and dancing -- a man in his 60s wheels a crank organ onto the premises. He's next on the entertainment docket.
"Oh, talk to him," says Casales. "He's got all kinds of stories about that player piano."
Cranking the handle of his hurdy-gurdy for all he's worth, Gino Schiavo churns out sprightly tunes in a half-organ, half-harpsichord sound. He manages to chat over his shoulder while he plays.
"My grandfather made his living playing this instrument," he says. "He'd roll it up and down Charles Street, St. Paul, Calvert Street. People would throw money into his hat. He raised three kids and bought two houses in Little Italy with the money from that."
It's the kind of contraption on which you expect to see a monkey prancing. His grandfather never had one -- he thought monkeys were dirty. But he did OK on his own. On the way home each evening, he'd stop at several neighborhood bars and play. "Everybody knew him. They'd let him drink for free," says Gino in something like admiration. "He always came home potted."
A woman from the growing crowd approaches to ask for the name of Schiavo's last tune. He has no idea; the hurdy-gurdy plays the same 10 songs it did 60 years ago, he says. "I know all the tunes, every note. But don't ask me any of their names. I never learned what they're called." And churning from the waist, wearing a smile, he cranks up the next one.
A neighborhood comes to life
By 8:15, the crowd has swelled so greatly that Keh and Cricchio have had to block off High Street as well as Stiles with orange traffic cones. The Composers play a soulful Italian tune, "Il Mondo," the same dance number they performed at Cricchio's wedding. Mr. John was right: the neighborhood has sprung to life. He waves from his third-floor deck.
The line in front of Vaccaro's bakery spills into the street, where 30-odd people waiting to order gelato, cannoli, cappucino and other delights are nearly swallowed up by the swelling crowd. Nick Vaccaro, the owner, is speaking with chef Mimmo Cricchio, Mary Ann Cricchio's husband and proprietor of DaMimmo restaurant. Vaccaro still wants his friend to see "La Vita e Bella," the Italian film in which Benigni's character uses humor to thwart his tormentors in a World War II concentration camp.
"It starts off slow, but the action picks up. It's not the happiest film, but it's very emotional," says Vaccaro.
The confectioner is a bit emotional himself as he talks about the series and what it's done for business, for the community. On a typical summer Saturday, he says, his restaurant serves 800 sit-down guests and 800 walk-in customers; the movies raise walk-in business by 30 to 40 percent, to about 1,100 per night. All the restaurateurs in Little Italy agree the fest, which is free to filmgoers, draws more customers as well as creating a warm feeling for the neighborhood. "Our dishes -- Italian ice, coffee, baked goods -- just seem to go with the atmosphere," Vaccaro says.
Outside the store, as the Composers offer up an agile "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," a woman stops Vaccaro and begins thanking him profusely. She's John Pente's daughter, and on the occasion of Mr. John's 90th birthday, Vaccaro's gave him a cake big enough to serve 100. "Wonderful, wonderful people in the neighborhood," Vaccaro says, nodding to the ever-growing throng.
Tonight's will be the biggest yet. Four thousand jammed the square to see "Cinema Paradiso" last summer, the festival's first; tonight Mary Ann will estimate the crowd at 5,000. "Amazing," she says. "The word has really gotten out. We barely even advertise."
The main event
At 8:55, Aldo and company are almost ready to yield the spotlight. Aldo, who plays twice a week in the piano bar at DaMimmo, becomes a kind of emcee. He thanks the Senator for the free popcorn it has provided, the restaurant association, and other businesses that have provided food and drink for the crowd. "Now," says Aldo through his mike, "I want everybody to say something in Italian. The word for 'yes' is 'si.' Can everyone say that?" He waves his arms like a conductor. "One ... two ... three ..."
"Si!" hollers the crowd.
Stars glimmer overhead as the first frames of "Moonstruck" flicker on the screen, and Dean Martin swings into the movie's signature song: "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie." Sings the crowd: "That's amore!"
The feature attraction has begun. On this warm evening, in the company of 5,000 new paesani, la vita e bella, indeed.
Little Italy schedule
There are still 11 weeks left in the Little Italy Open-Air Film Festival, with "Italian-themed" films ranging from "Roman Holiday" with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn to "Cinema Paradiso." Screenings begin at 9 p.m. each Friday (with rain date the following Sunday) at High and Stiles streets. Admission is free; bringing your own folding or lawn chair is advised. The schedule:
July 21: "Marcello Mastroianni -- I Remember" (1980)
July 28: "La Boheme" (1988)
Aug. 4: "Night of the Shooting Stars" (1982)
Aug. 11: "General Della Rovere" (1959)
Aug. 18: "Summertime" (1955)
Aug. 25: "Tea With Mussolini" (1999)
Sept. 1: "Come September" (1961)
Sept. 8: "Roman Holiday" (1953)
Sept. 15: "The Family" (1987)
Sept. 22: "Everybody's Fine" (1990)
Sept. 29: "Cinema Paradiso" (1989)
Charles Village at the movies
A few miles north of Little Italy in Wyman Park Dell, another free outdoor film festival has sprung up this summer. The Outdoor Movie Festival in Charles Village is offering four more weeks of classic films from the 1940s in an amphitheater-style setting on the grass.
The festival, the brainchild of Charles Village booster Bob Rathmann (who bought the projector and built the movie screen himself), takes place on Monday evenings (with Tuesday rain dates) at about 9 p.m. A local merchant has provided free popcorn.
Last week's rain-delayed premiere, featuring "Citizen Kane," drew more than 100 filmgoers to the dell, located just west of Charles Street between 29th Street and Art Museum Drive. Patrons lounged on blankets and lawn chairs and listened to music while reels were changed.
"It went really, really well," says Rathmann. "There were a lot of picnics."
July 17: "The Bicycle Thief" (1948)
July 24: "Dead of Night" (1945)
July 31: "D.O.A." (1949)
Aug. 7: "The Third Man" (1949)