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Little Big Italy

July 5, 2011

While I’m in Nicaragua, Zoe graciously agreed to write a guest post. Enjoy!

I have a giant love-hate relationship with the city where I was born and raised – Baltimore. I despise the fact that it’s known for its crime and murder rates, STDs and heroin abuse, but love that it is still known for Natty Boh, crabs, “hon” and the O’s. It’s a constant in itself; if Baltimore changes, long-time residents would throw themselves off the rooftops for sure. With the bad comes the good, and that’s why Baltimore still has a small but warm place in my heart.
The city does permeate greatness through its remaining ethnic neighborhoods. Koreatown has managed to hold on to the last few stores and restaurants on Charles Street. The Ukrainian church still rings proud and there are a few tea houses surrounding reminiscent of decades past. Greektown is clutching to its last remaining islander meeting places and renowned restaurants. Sadly, there is but one remaining Jewish deli in the city on Cornbeef Row/Lombard Street.
And then, there’s Little Italy.
Little Italy is a part of my childhood and continues to make me smile whenever I walk its streets, take in deep breaths of oregano, and taste the tender tomato oozing out of my pizza sauce. The old men sit outside on chairs in front of their houses watching passersby, and the tourists and long-time Baltimore residents head toward the restaurants that have been local namesakes for years.
Last Friday, I decided to attend the opening night of Little Italy’s Outdoor Film Festival with my parents. My father kept saying we had to get there to reserve good spaces for chairs – even though it was 5:30 p.m. and the movie didn’t start until 9! I kept mocking him, but he was actually on to something. People had already set up chairs by the time we got there. Streets were automatically closed off due to the copious amounts of seats, popcorn and people lined up to see the festival’s first film of the season, Moonstruck. By 9, at least 800 people were in attendance, laughing and carrying on while Cher slapped Nicolas Cage.
Prior to the film, the night had to be started with a visit to Isabella’s.  A small deli and pizza place, Isabella’s makes the freshest pizza and Italian sandwiches in Baltimore that I know of. I bought a fresca sandwich that was loaded fresh buffalo mozzarella, roasted red peppers, pesto, fresh basil and chopped iceberg lettuce. I couldn’t help exclaiming every two minutes how ‘fresh’ the thing was – and it was larger than my already-large head. Yum.
Twenty minutes later, my family and I were craving something sweet and immediately sprinted off to Vaccaro’s. This place is Baltimore’s pastry and gelato gem, and offers mutant-sized portions of gelato, granita, Italian pastries, cookies, and cakes. Everyone comes here to devour up its greatness. My mother and I helped ourselves to granita and gelato, respectively. Mi madre opted for the large chocolate ice/granita, and I remained true to my old favorite, a small baci gelato. Baci means ‘kisses’ in Italian, but I tend to think this tastes more like hazelnut…
As you can see, there is nothing small about these two offerings. The trick is to eat the top layer before it melts into goo all over your hands.
Lucky for me, Little Italy’s bocci teams were out playing on the bocci lanes and for a second, I felt like I was in 1970s New York. Older men were playing the sport, all the while smoking cigarettes and sporting tattoos of Sicilia or Italia. The women talked along the side, pointing out the intricacies of the sport to their friends and carrying on. The ltalian tikes sat on a bench on the other side of the bocci lane, silent and watching.
And this is why I miss Baltimore. This is one of many constants that gives the city its gritty and bittersweet flavor. I now live in Washington, DC now, and while I am thankful to have moved out of the City that Breeds and Bleeds, Washington doesn’t hold a candle to Baltimore in terms of community and ethnic variety. Unless you count the Disneypark version of Chinatown in downtown DC, there are no ethnic neighborhoods to speak of. Plenty of exceptional ethnic restaurants and large festivals with generic names (which I enjoy), but there is no engrained ethnic community that I have found yet in exploring the city.
One Comment leave one →
  1. July 5, 2011 8:35 am

    I remember going to little Italy as a young girl. Those were special nights out with the family. A lot of great memories there. Nothing else like it. Its screams family, comfort, love and good times.

    I have a love/hate relationship with Baltimore also. I was in Baltimore last night and reminded of some of the bad….its ok though…I guess all places can leave those types of feeling.

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