We’re still on our tour from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor, but I am getting tired of using the same title post after post. And today we’re going to concentrate on the area called Little Italy, which is just north of Harbor East, so it seemed fitting to title this post, er, Little Italy.
Once upon a time, Little Italy was the neighborhood for dining out, at least for those of us in Fells Point. If we wanted to celebrate a special occasion, we went to Little Italy. If we craved garlic and meatballs and good lasagne, we went to Little Italy. I’ve been to restaurants in that neighborhood for everything from wedding receptions to christenings to first dates. And funerals. Once the occasion turned out to be a funeral for a first date that went south immediately after “hi, how are you?” The company was infuriating, but at least the food was good.
My family mostly went to Chiapparelli’s and occasionally the late, great, Velleggia’s if it was a really special dinner. We also liked now-closed DeNittis, but most of the time just went there for carry-out pizza. When my cousin married the best friend of one of Sabatino’s owners, that became our new favorite restaurant. We locals weren’t the only folks who went to dinner in Little Italy, as evidenced by the celebrity photos on the walls of various establishments. Sinatra liked Sab’s, and Tom Selleck was a regular at Da Mimmo in the late 80s while filming a movie in the area. Tony Bennett has also eaten there repeatedly. And this was back when it was almost impossible to find a parking place in the neighborhood. Weekend dinner excursions to Little Italy always involved several tours around the block to see if anyone had vacated their space yet. I’m sure this was especially annoying for folks who lived in the area; Little Italy is above all a residential neighborhood. Some families have lived there for generations. These days there are several garages in the area to handle the parking dilemma, but aren’t you glad to be on foot?
Some restaurants from my childhood aren’t around anymore, but others have taken their place. One in particular occupies a special niche in my heart; Cafe Gia is also one of the restaurants closest to Harbor East, so we’ll start our tour there, at the corner of Eastern Avenue and High Street. Owned by an immigrant family that has lived in Little Italy since the 50s, Cafe Gia is the recreation of a Sicilian bistro. Inside and out the restaurant is decorated with colorful murals, even the table tops, and the food is familiar yet sophisticated. We’ll look at Cafe Gia in more depth in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, we recommend their octopus and owner Giovanna’s scrumptious tiramisu. The family also owns Pane e Vino, a cute little wine and cocktail bar next door, which is a fine place to start or end a stroll through the neighborhood.
Across the street from Cafe Gia is a place one might never expect to find in a neighborhood called Little Italy: an Indian restaurant. Little India is open for lunch and dinner and features tandoori favorites like kabobs and tandoori chicken, and a wide variety of curries and vegetarian dishes. They also have a buffet, which is a great way to try a little bit of this and a little bit of that for people who aren’t particularly familiar with the cuisine.
Continuing north-ish up High Street, you’ll find several more Italian restaurants. Joe Benny’s is a foccaciaria, where just about everything is served on the olive oil-enriched pizza-like bread called focaccia. They have two dozen varieties of thick Sicilian pizza made with focaccia, a couple of which are topped with burrata, a type of mozzarella filled with cream. Burrata makes me drool just thinking about it. The stuff’s not for the calorie averse, but sometimes ya gotta live a little!
If you’re looking for a little something more posh, stop into Aldo’s. They’re only open for dinner, but dinner there is an experience, especially if you’re into the finer things in life. Start off with the seared Hudson Valley foie gras with amarena cherry sauce or a lovely risotto with Maine lobster tail–cooked sous vide so it’s impossibly tender–then go on to the “degustazione,” or tasting, of two or three of their silky house-made pastas, like the pappardelle with bolognese or the orecchiette with broccoli rabe and Italian sausage. If you’re in the mood for meat, the Tournedos Rossini, a classic preparation of filet mignon, foie gras, and wild mushrooms is a palate pleaser, but so is the giant Tuscan grilled veal porterhouse chop. Service is impeccable, too.
A couple doors down from Aldo’s is Germano’s Piattini. They’ve been around for a while but changed their menu to a small plates concept a couple of years back. Piattini are somewhat like tapas, and a good way to go for those of us who don’t want large portions of pasta or meat. Make a meal of multiple plates, like the truffled mushroom flatbread, some beet ravioli, grilled asparagus, a selection of charcuterie, maybe some fried artichokes or grilled octopus, and be sure to share. Choosing wisely can produce a lovely vegetarian or gluten-free meal, or a meat fest if you prefer. Several times a week, Germano’s offers cabaret-style entertainment in the upstairs dining room. Check their web site, for a schedule of performances and more information.
Across the street, on the corner of High and Fawn, is Sabatino’s. Sab’s, as it’s known, has been around since the mid-1950s, and while it’s hip enough to offer a separate menu of gluten free items, it also knows not to mess around with the classic Italian-American dishes they’ve been serving since day one. Minestrone and veal scaloppine will always be available, as will spaghetti and meatballs. My favorites are the gnocchi and the ravioli, the latter particularly when it was made by my cousin’s mother-in-law, Maria, a long-time Little Italy resident with a deft hand at pasta-making. And I never miss their famous Bookmaker’s salad, a garden salad topped with shrimp, salami, hard-boiled egg, and the double cheese whammy of both provolone and a Parmesan-rich house dressing.
I could go on and on, and I will, but you’ll have to wait until next time forthat. There are still more restaurants on High Street, plus a couple others definitely worth a mention dotted here and there in the neighborhood, including another non-Italian ethnic joint that might float your boat. And beer.
Read additional Stories from this series
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.
Editors Note: One thing we like to do when launching in a city is to partner with local writers. This is a key part to the City Walker experience, we don’t only want our app (iOS and Android) to have a local prospective, we want our blog to have it too! This gives the authentic personal prospective that no one other than a local can offer. We are honored to have MINXEATS be a guest writer for City Walker in Baltimore.