Regina Vitale, the co-founder of Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano in Little Italy who was the matriarch of her family and the business, died of cancer Wednesday at Gilchrist Hospice Towson. She was 67.
“She had a lust for life, a joie de vivre and a robust personality,” said her son, Sergio Vitale. “The restaurant was just a stage or platform through which she interacted with the world.”
Born Regina Schmink in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Francis Schmink and his wife, Mary Poliscuk. She attended St. Leo the Great School and later earned a high school equivalency diploma. She lived in Little Italy as a child.
She met her future husband, Rinaldo Vitale, who was then a cabinetmaker, at a dance. He came to Baltimore in 1961 from Calabria, Italy.
In the 1970s Mr. Vitale worked at Russo’s in Little Italy and later opened a pizza takeout, Bevi’s, at Moravia Road and Sinclair Lane in Northeast Baltimore.
She and her husband decided to move to Glen Arm and in 1981 opened Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano in Fallston.
“She was an empathetic people person,” said her son. "She had strong personality and opinions. Her role was to be in the front of the house while my father ran the kitchen. They were totally complementary. She was a total extrovert and my father was an introvert. She did not suffer fools and had opinion on everything.
“She had a sense of empathy and a love for people. She would watch the news and cry.”
Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician in chief at Maryland Shock Trauma, and a friend, said: “Regina was a beautiful individual and a peaceful individual. She brought a passion and love to her family and life.”
Her son said of his mother, “You felt the presence when she entered a room. People would walk up to her on the street and tell her their life’s problems. She attracted people to her.”
He also noted her spirituality. “She had tremendous faith,” her son said. “The faith she chose as a child informed her whole life.”
The couple later decided to sell Aldo’s in Fallston and for several years ran a wholesale pastry business on Haven Street.
She and her husband found a dilapidated, vacant pair of houses on Little Italy’s High Street. They spent more than a year renovating the properties.
“It was my mother’s insistence that we hire the designer Rita St. Clair to create the place. My mother wanted people to experience in the style of a restaurant in Italy. She also a flair for the beautiful. She insisted the place be an uplifting, a beautiful environment. She realized there was then a movement to refine and elevate the Baltimore food scene. The Oregon Grille had just opened and so had Charleston and she wanted to be part of this.”
When Aldo’s opened in 1998, Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large said it “could well be the prettiest restaurant in Little Italy.”
Her son said the renovation of the restaurant was a bold move. “My mom always encouraged my father to step out of his comfort zone,” he said.
The restaurant was soon discovered and featured in Southern Living, among other publications.
“She had a way of reading people. She thought steps ahead and had a hug and a kiss ready as her guests arrived,” said Margaret Miller, an Aldo event manager and bartender. “She was perceptive and was always on her game. Her memory for names was amazing, but if she didn’t remember the name, she’d get you to say it. She had that knack."
A 1998 Sun article described her role when the Food Network filmed the Feast of 13 Fishes, a traditional meal served in Southern Italy on Christmas Eve.
She said of the event: “We talk about the food. We talk about what we did last year. But the best part is just getting together to eat.”
A funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, 227 S. Exeter St. in Little Italy.