A Taste of Little Italy

This Maryland neighborhood boasts 23 restaurants devoted to Italian cuisine.
Cassandra M. Vanhooser

Just east of the Inner Harbor, this part of Baltimore revolves around faith, family, and food. Even now, St. Leo the Great Catholic Church, built in 1880, anchors the close-knit community. Row houses with marble steps line the narrow streets. When the weather gets warm, residents sit outside on benches or in lawn chairs and visit with friends and neighbors.

"We've survived here for more than 125 years because we believe in family traditions, private enterprise, and the American dream," says Roberto Marsili, president of the Little Italy Community Organization. "Visitors who come to this neighborhood will see what America used to be and what we still want it to be."

Still, it's the neighborhood's reputation for fine Italian restaurants that draws thousands of visitors to the area each year. More than 20 restaurants populate this section of Baltimore, serving hearty helpings of old-world Italy. You'll find everything Italian, from a market that sells homemade sausage and brick-oven pizzas to fantastic bakeries that serve decadent treats to elegant establishments that cater to the stars. By midmorning, the tantalizing smell of homemade sauces and freshly baked bread leads you to this cluster of eateries.

Finding the Best
With so much good Italian food available, the biggest problem visitors have is selecting a restaurant (that, and maintaining a trim waistline). Soliciting advice from the locals is rarely helpful. Ask anyone on the street, and they'll shrug their shoulders and skirt the question, reluctant to choose one friend over the other.

"Each restaurant has its own following," explains Anthony Gambino of Ciao Bella. "When my guests come here, I want to win their trust. I say to them, 'Trust me. I'll feed you my best.' "

That turns out to be the most helpful advice we found. In Little Italy, it pays to put yourself in the chef's hands. Even if you have a favorite Italian dish (mine is veal scaloppine), step out and try something different. Every restaurant has a specialty, and a few well-placed questions should reveal a wonderful selection.

We found many favorites using this approach. At Ciao Bella, Anthony's Crab Toast takes center plate. Thick, crusty slices of garlic toast piled high with crab imperial are paired with a light brandy cream sauce. Save room for dessert--the menu changes, but the three-layer chocolate mousse cake is not to be missed. Amicci's, a very casual eatery and possibly the least expensive restaurant in Little Italy, features the Pane Rotundo. This round Italian bread loaf is hollowed out, then toasted with garlic and butter, and filled with shrimp in a garlic cream sauce.

La Scala wowed us with a grilled Caesar salad, served warm and slightly charred. At Chiapparelli's, the house salad alone constitutes a meal, but you'll want to sample the Italian Wedding Soup and Mama Chiapparelli's Ravioli. Big spenders and the starstruck will love Da Mimmo's, the restaurant that touts itself as the place "where the stars dine." Chef Mimmo built his reputation on the butterflied veal chop, a deliciously tender cut that could feed a small army. Don't forget Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop, known for its cannoli.

Hats Off to Aldo
While lots of restaurants have great food, the one that best puts it all together is Aldo's Ristorante Italiano. The entire package--food, service, atmosphere, and wine list--is so exemplary it makes you want to hug your mama.

Chef Aldo Vitale's seasonally changing menu features the freshest locally grown ingredients. You'll choose from tender risottos and flavorful pastas, as well as both traditional and innovative entrées. The house specialty, and my favorite, is Tournedos Rossini, a petite filet mignon topped with black truffles, porcini and shiitake mushrooms, and foie gras. "Every time I cook, home comes to mind," says Aldo, a self-taught chef who left Italy in 1961. "The traditions and the taste of Italy--that's what I use in my cooking."

For more information: Contact the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association; toll free 1-877-225-8466 or www.baltimore.org.

This article is from the March 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.