Despite lots of competition, the restaurants of Baltimore’s Little Italy have longevity, which speaks to the loyalty of their customers.
And though many of them seem old-fashioned, most restaurants now offer gluten-free pastas or at least make note of dishes that are free of that particular allergen. Not a lot of low-carb food to be found, however, or vegan or Paleo dishes, but baby steps…. If you’re in the market for something rib-sticking and soul-satisfying, this is your neighborhood.
If we continue up High Street from where we left off last week, we’ll find Chiapparelli’s just across Fawn Street from Sabatino’s. There are similarities between the two restaurants. For one thing, they’ve each been around since the middle of the last century (Chiapparelli’s is older, however, by 15 years). For another, they both have memorably huge salads. While Sab’s serves theirs as an app, diners at Chip’s get a mountain of iceberg lettuce topped with red onion, pepperoncini, and olives topped with a lightly sweet and super-cheesy dressing with every entree. It’s really a meal unto itself, and if you can finish yours, you’ll probably be doggy bagging much of your dinner. To guarantee that, order the Tour of Chiapparelli’s, which includes their homemade lasagne with meat sauce, plus eggplant or chicken Parmesan AND fettuccine Alfredo.
Amicci’s, a few doors up the street, opened a full 50 years after Chip’s and has already been around for 27 years. Amicci’s started out as a 25-seat deli run by two friends (“amici” is “friend” in Italian) and over the years has expanded to accommodate nearly 300 patrons. They bill themselves as a “very” casual eatery and bar, and honestly, I’m not quite sure what that means. The food is still served on plates by fully-dressed wait staff and includes classics like gnocchi, veal parm, and lasagna. They’re probably best known for their pane rotundo, a round loaf of Italian bread brushed with garlic butter and topped with fat shrimp drenched in a creamy sauce. It’s messy and delicious and definitely made for sharing with people whom you don’t mind watching you lick sauce off your fingers. Or their fingers.
Across the street is Ciao Bella, another fixture in the neighborhood. Like the others, they serve lots of familiar dishes, but with a couple of twists. They have escargot, for instance, and fresh fish specials. Crab toast is a decadent starter featuring lump crab imperial over garlic toast with provolone cheese and a cognac cream sauce. There’s also pizza on both the lunch and dinner menu. But if you’re just in the mood for pizza without the white tablecloth, check out Isabella’s at High and Stiles. This small storefront restaurant offers hot and cold subs, pies, and salads, to eat in or carry out. Their version of a “Scooch”–capicollo and soppressata, with porchetta, gouda cheese, roasted peppers and a balsamic dressing–comes in both sandwich and salad form. There are three variations on a cheesesteak; I dig the Siciliano with rapini, pepper cheese, and tomato, but you can get a classic “Americano” even if you are in Little Italy.
Two doors down is Da Mimmo, Tom Selleck’s favorite place to eat when he was in town filming a movie in the 80s. Back then, it was big news when a celeb took a shine to a local restaurant and Tom’s visits to Little Italy were splashed all over local media. Da Mimmo’s menu is a bit fancier than that of some other restaurants in the area, less pasta-heavy, and with a few more luxury items, like the Lobster Tetrazzini made from the meat of two 6-ounce lobster tails sauteed in brandy cream sauce, a grilled rack of lamb with walnut and gorgonzola risotto, and a filet mignon carpaccio app.
If we walk back to Stiles Street then head west a block toward the Harbor we can have dessert at Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop, another neighborhood stalwart. The bakery originally opened 61 years ago in a smaller shop across the street from its current location and not only has all the Italian cookies and cakes you could ever want, but also gelato and enormous gelato-based desserts called Colosseos served over Belgian waffles. They have smaller sundaes, too, not that anything there can truly be described as “small,” except for perhaps individual cookies. Most everyone in my family has at least one sweet tooth, and we’d go to Little Italy just to get Vaccaro’s cookies and maybe a cannoli or two. Back then, Dad might have to do a no-no and double park while one of us ran in for a bag of amaretti and pignoli, the soft almond macaroons studded with almonds or pine nuts. They used to sell a cookie called osso di morte, or bones of the dead, that were rock-hard and clove-flavored. Possibly too weird to be a big seller, but I loved them and could make one cookie last for an hour. These days, we usually have a few scoops of gelato and a coffee in the cafe–a popular pastime on summer evenings when the shop can have a line out the door.
There are still a couple more restaurants in Little Italy worth talking about, including last week’s promised non-Italian ethnic food and beer, but I’m going to be a jerk and save them for the next installment. They’re also kinda scattered around the neighborhood so our stroll won’t be in as much of a straight line. Make sure you have your walking shoes on!
Minxeats Baltimore food blogger and Co-author of the new book, Maryland’s Chesapeake: How the Bay and its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine, plus Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore, and Baltimore Chef’s Table.
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