Sometime in 1914, Luigi DiPasquale, who had left his home of Abruzzi, Italy, came to Baltimore and opened a corner store in Highlandtown. Ever the entrepreneur, he butchered and sold meats and also sold live goats tethered in the backyard.
This week I spoke with his grandson, Joe DiPasquale, who continues the unbroken family tradition 100 years later. His business at 3700 Gough St. remains true to its original vision while adjusting to the times.
Today, DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace is a thriving destination. DiPasquale conducts business in a converted classic Baltimore rowhouse, where customers arrive for prepared entrees and bulging sandwiches. Those who know the place consider it a hidden find deep within an old neighborhood.
There is a large selection of imported and domestic wines, as well as all the specialized groceries and canned goods. But look in the prepared foods section, where the menu advises customers to "Be Prepared" for the meatball sub. Others know about other house favorites, the porketta (a sliced pork dish wrapped in pancetta), and the Real Italian, a cold-cut sandwich.
"The secret is the bread. We bake it ourselves," said DiPasquale, who added ovens when he felt he could not buy the kind of crusty roll he wanted for his sandwiches.
"We do all our own prep work, We peel that potato. We make everything," he said. Working alongside him is wife Sabrina, son Domenico, daughter Marcella, sister-in-law Mariagrazia Parravano, and sisters Angie Knox and Annamaria Boone. His chef is Milan-born Davide Rossi, who has worked at Sotto Sopra in Mount Vernon and the old Pazza Luna in Locust Point.
Making so much of the food that is sold here has required DiPasquale to expand and expand again in one of Highlandtown's sub-neighborhoods that retains the uncanny feel of 1950s Baltimore.
DiPasquale gave me a tour of his community. Dean Street, he said, was once known as Hog Alley because of the pigs that went to the slaughterhouses and the meatpackers. Esskay was once located just up the street. His grandfather had a profitable side business making laundry bleach in garage-like buildings behind Claremont Street, where the original DiPasquale grocery stood, not far from the parish church, Our Lady of Pompei.
DiPasquale said some of the commercial buildings here were owned by the Aiello family, who were local builders. Chicago gangster Al Capone worked as a bookkeeper for the Aiellos briefly in the early 1920s in the very rowhouse that is now home to the DiPasquale Marketplace.
"We're going to have a screen painted with him on it," DiPasquale said.
Several years ago, DiPasquale assessed his business and realized that a corner grocery store could no longer compete with larger stores. He spent three months in Italy and immersed himself in its culture of food, returning to Baltimore with a fresh concept.
"People want taste, flavor and authenticity," he said. "There is the Italian-American version and the Italian version. I wanted the Italian version."
Word spread about what he was doing. The producers of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" filmed the place for three days in 2008. The topic was lasagna, pizza, porketta and rice balls.
"When they called, I didn't even answer the phone. It was an 800 number, and I ignored it," DiPasquale said.
After the 2008 episode aired, lines of his patrons spilled out the door.
"I know from standing in the long lines at lunchtime that the people who go to DiPasquale's are from all over the city and some are from out of town," said Chris Ryer, director of the Southeast Community Development Corp. "The place has a huge following. On Fridays, when it is extra busy, I tell people to go early or after 2 p.m."
The business relies on catering orders from Johns Hopkins medical institutions.
"Those orders keep us going," DiPasquale said. "We don't rely on walk-in traffic alone."