Milan finds itself at odds with its Little Italy neighbors

Just three months after Milan opened its doors, billing itself as a restaurant-lounge "where food meets fashion," it seems a few more introductions are in order:

Milan, meet Little Italy.

And Little Italy, meet what could be the future.

The old city neighborhood that's been known to split bitterly over bocce court lighting has turned its feisty spirit on the sleek newcomer.

Complaining that Milan is more nightclub than restaurant, attracting noisy crowds and employing outside promoters, a group of neighbors has petitioned the city not to renew Milan's liquor license. The Liquor Board will consider the matter at a hearing April 29.

Milan's owner said he has been surprised by objections from the neighborhood, however famously cantankerous. But it is those complaining about Milan, he suggested, who need to get a better sense of Little Italy.

A neighborhood of Formstone rowhouses, Little Italy has a past humble enough for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to play up in her political biography the way Bill Clinton highlighted Hope, Ark. But today Little Italy sits next door to Harbor East, a posh enclave whose exclusive high-rises and boutiques seemingly sprang up overnight. Physically and conceptually, Milan represents the intersection of these two very different neighborhoods. Milan owner Curlee Smittie Jr. said Little Italy should welcome their coming together.

"Baltimore is becoming more of a metropolitan city, but we don't have metropolitan venues for entertainment," he said, noting the luxury housing on, or planned for, the harbor. "The Ritz or Four Seasons or Spinnaker Bay — these guys need more than a checkered tablecloth and a bowl of spaghetti."

"People who live in Harbor East don't come to Little Italy unless they come to Milan," Smittie added. "But now they say, ‘Let's go try Caesar's Den.' Little Italy is getting a lot of hype from our venue."

The "hype" is going down about as well as cold spaghetti.

"That's insulting to the community to say we can't handle something new and hip," said Tony DeFranco, 30, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose parents still live there, above their restaurant, Caesar's Den. "Little Italy is not the neighborhood it was 10, 15 years ago with the little old ladies and the little old men sitting on the front step arguing over bocce ball. Sure, it still retains some of that old-world feel, but there are a lot of young people down there. Young families."

And they "get" Milan, DeFranco said. They just don't want it, he said, if it is promoted as a club.

"Little Italy had the wool pulled over their eyes," DeFranco said. "The way they pitched it, it was going to be no different than any other restaurant in Little Italy. Basically pasta, family style. ... The neighborhood kind of looked at [the club-style promotions] as kind of a betrayal."

In their protest to the Liquor Board, residents complained about loud music, noisy and loitering patrons, overflowing trash containers, traffic and the use of promoters. Smittie said the club has hired off-duty police officers to direct traffic, added private trash removal, rearranged valet parking and had an acoustical engineer analyze noise from across the street. (The readings were "well within the Baltimore city noise ordinance code," said Peter Mooradian, Milan's general manager.)

But Smittie acknowledged using promoters, something the club explicitly agreed not to do when the liquor board approved its license in July, board records show.

Jet Set Mafia, a local event promoter, has been advertising the club and working the door. There is nothing illegal about using promoters, but the board has yanked liquor licenses from clubs that broke promises not to use them, most recently in September with the Canton dance club Phantom. In September, the board revoked the license of Phantom, a Canton dance club found to have violated an agreement with community leaders that prohibited advertising for parties.

"We originally were not planning to work with partners, but after the first few weeks of opening, we realized that in order to attract an audience that would respect, value and appreciate the Milan experience and would also be respectful of the Little Italy community, it would be best," Smittie said via e-mail. "Our intent was not to go against the wishes of the Little Italy community, but to make sure we are maintaining an audience that has the same adoration for fine dining and this community that we do."

Jet Set Mafia raised eyebrows recently by advertising that it would not admit men unaccompanied by women to Milan after 10:30 p.m. While Liquor Board Chairman Stephan Fogleman has questioned the legality of the policy, Smittie said it was meant to prevent the club from becoming a "meat market."

"When a place is the new place to go and it's not governed and controlled, it will come into a nightclub atmosphere," he said.

That is precisely what Milan's critics say the promoters create, by hyping it as a place to party.

Critics say the promoters hype Milan as a place to party, drawing crowds that stay later, drink harder and make more noise than traditional Little Italy diners.

"I would define a promoter as an enabler for the club-slash-restaurant, whatever you want to call it," DeFranco said. "The only reason you need a promoter is to sort of market a party," DeFranco said.

Twenty-seven people signed the petition to the liquor board. (It only takes 10 to trigger a hearing.) The signers were surprisingly reticent. Of those reached by The Baltimore Sun, only one agreed to comment.

Michael DiCicco, who was writing letters to the liquor board about Milan before it even opened, would say only this much: "Whatever happens in the liquor board, we'll find out."

He said he did not want to comment further because that might prevent Milan from getting a fair hearing.

DeFranco did not sign the petition. He lives in Otterbein, but with his parents' residence and business still in Little Italy, he remains active in community affairs. He hopes to testify at the liquor board hearing.

Several residents who did not sign the petition but live in the 900 block of Eastern Avenue, just a block from Milan, said they were not bothered by it. There were old-timers and newcomers alike in that camp.

"We don't get any repercussions from it," said Sal Milio, 84, who has made his home there his whole life.

Said Steve Stran, a 28-year-old T. Rowe Price employee who has lived in Little Italy for two years: "I don't know why there's such a hatred for the restaurant."

Which doesn't mean Stran is a fan of Milan. He was put off by what struck him as Miami-wannabe decor and the "pretentious" decision to list menu prices in both dollars and euros.

"It's not really my cup of tea, to be quite honest with you," he said.

Another resident in that block said she was slightly bothered by Milan crowds, and wary that things could get noisier as the weather warms up and she starts opening her windows.

"It's not all that bothersome," said Teresa Cuneo, who lives in the rowhouse where she grew up. "Let's see where it goes from here."

Cuneo recalls the days when the restaurant Luigi Petti drew crowds to the same location. Lines snaked out the door, she said, but it was a more sedate crowd than what Milan draws.

"They kind of talk loud and use profane language. It would seem to me they're younger," she said of the Milan crowd. "Another thing — they go in groups. ... It's not a restaurant per se, we can tell that. That's the difference."

Cuneo has not been to Milan, but she has a menu that her niece picked up on opening night. She scratches her head at the $19 "Italian sushi" rolls or $14 "small plate" lobster mac-n-cheese, and thinks the young patrons aren't ordering it either.

"They're not going in to order meals," she said. "These young people couldn't afford the prices. And the meals are so exotic. I don't know who the chef is, but all kind of weird kind of concoctions. The clientele, I don't think, would go for that kind of food."

What food does she think they'd want?

Cheap bar food, she figures. "You know, chicken and wings."

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