SAVING LITTLE ITALY
Baltimore magazine|January 2021
THE ICONIC ETHNIC NEIGHBORHOOD HAS OUTLASTED ALL OF BALTIMORE’S OLD-WORLD ENCLAVES. NOW IT FACES ITS GREATEST CHALLENGE IN MORE THAN A CENTURY.
Ron Cassie

MARIO SCILIPOTI LEFT his newly wed and, unbeknownst to him, pregnant wife behind in their mountainside Sicilian village when he departed for the United States. The 23-year-old did not speak English. He did not have, or need, a visa when his ship, the Patria, sailed past the Statue of Liberty and landed at Ellis Island. He did not have a lucrative job or graduate school admission waiting. Arriving 100 years ago this spring, he only had hopes of a brighter future for his soon-to-be-family and an uncle in Baltimore who was a barber. Following a lengthy apprenticeship, while his still-unmet Bambina spoke her first words back in Sicily, Scilipoti received his own license from the Maryland Board of Barber Examiners on July 24, 1922. Over time, he built a clientele and opened a shop on East Pratt Street. After five years, he returned to Sicily to reunite with his wife, Domenica, and daughter, Josefa, and they later followed him back to Baltimore.

In 1930, Tommaso, the couple’s second child, was born above that rowhouse Pratt Street barbershop. He, too, would earn a barber’s license and place a spinning red, white, and blue pole outside the window of his rowhouse. However, the younger Scilipoti, nicknamed “Mazzi” in the neighborhood, also had his eye on another career, which would prove fortuitous for the section of Southeast Baltimore already known by then as Little Italy.

Tom “Mazzi” Scilipoti had been in grade school at nearby St. Leo’s when his father, recognizing his interest in photography, bought him his first Ansco folding camera. By 20, he was shooting for the Baltimore Guide, an ongoing freelance gig that the award-winning, now90-year-old photographer held for 66 years until the community paper shuttered in 2016. Over that time, the son of the immigrant barber took more pictures of the iconic Italian-American enclave in its heyday than any other photographer, capturing everyday life from its kitchens, corner stores, sandlot ballfields, Easter processions, and annual festivals—as well as the communions, graduations, and weddings of generations of immigrant families.

He also documented many of the celebrity visitors to Little Italy’s narrow streets and famed eating establishments, from heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to burlesque legend Blaze Starr and pop stars such as Perry Como, to politicians from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton.

He even served as the official photographer of both childhood pal Tommy D’Alesandro III’s mayoral inauguration and the wedding of Tommy’s daughter, a certain future U.S. Speaker of the House, Nancy née D’Alesandro Pelosi.

“I’d get a call from Roma’s or Maria’s restaurant, and they’d say, ‘so-and-so just came in,’ and I’d grab my camera and run over,” Scilipoti recalls from his Bank Street home, a few blocks away from the heart of Little Italy. It’s the same rowhouse where he and his deceased wife Concetta, an Italian immigrant, raised their three children and where he has remained for nearly seven decades. “It was an exciting place to be a young photographer,” he continues, with a nod and smile, flipping through some neighborhood photos, which include a 1950s parade led by three young aspirational Little Italy politicians—Tommy D’Alesandro III, John Pica Sr., and Joseph Bertorelli (see opening spread). “It was an exciting place to be an old photographer, too.”

Today, nearly all of Scilipoti’s contemporaries have passed, of course, including D’Alesandro, whose death in 2019 marked the end of an era for the once politically powerful Little Italy voting bloc. Popular across the city, he was known as “Young Tommy” to distinguish him from his father, Tommy D’Alesandro Jr., a former congressman whose election as mayor in 1947 had people dancing in the streets of Little Italy. Meanwhile, many, if not most of Scilipoti’s friends and their descendants moved over the years to Baltimore County for more square feet and larger, grassy backyards. By 1980, assimilation—the very thing Italian immigrants hoped for their children and grandchildren—posed a threat to the Italian haven’s long-term viability. St. Leo’s School, which had educated some five generations of Little Italy kids, was forced to close that year because of the shrinking number of young families in the neighborhood.

“You can’t blame them,” Scilipoti says with a shrug, speaking of those who decamped for the suburbs while he stayed put. “The people who left, they come back for the festivals or to go to Mass at St. Leo’s or to see people they know, anyhow. But it wasn’t for me. My studio was here. The church was here. I had a boat in the marina. It was convenient. It’s still convenient. My son Mario, he lives close by in Highlandtown. I know the restaurants are struggling terribly now, but the restaurants were here, and they’re still here. I’ve got an exhibition up right now at Chiapparelli’s.

“The future of Little Italy?” Scilipoti says, considering the impact of the deadly pandemic on the dozen-plus local eateries, a couple dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, and the broader neighborhood, which has been forced to cancel its annual festivals, events, and activities, and severely limit church attendance. Scilpoti says he’s not too worried—after all, Little Italy has held on to its identity longer than all of Baltimore’s other Old-World enclaves. “All I know is that it’s been here as long as I’ve been here.”

The tight-knit, roughly 15-square-block neighborhood, with its family-owned restaurants, bocce leagues, cabaret, annual festivals (St. Gabri-el, St. Anthony, and Madonnari Arts), homespun spaghetti and ravioli fundraising dinners, culinary and language classes, and church listed on the National Registry of Historic Places—in other words, Little Italy we know today—was in many ways born out of the first crisis it weathered. In 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire swept across the city, leveling downtown over a day and a half before it threatened to cross the Jones Falls and reach what was then referred to as the Italian “colony.” At St. Leo’s, the devout offered prayers that their homes and church be spared. As the flames continued to move closer, they cried out to St. Anthony of Padua, one of Italy’s most beloved saints, pleading for intercession. Eventually, terrified residents watching from the banks of the Jones Falls raced back to St. Leo’s, where they removed the statue of St. Anthony and carried it to the harbor for its protection, promising to honor the saint with an annual feast if the neighborhood survived, which it did because of a sudden, some said miraculous, early morning shift in the winds.

Soon after, The Baltimore Sun began noting and covering the community’s new St. Anthony festival, now describing the neighborhood no longer as a “colony” or “settlement,” but more affectionately as Little Italy. “The night scenes along the streets of Little Italy are as if they were transported from the streets of Naples or Genoa,” The Sun wrote in the summer of 1911, highlighting the neighborhood’s talented accordion players, as well as the immigrant laborers’ love of good wine, spaghetti and tomato sauce, imported sardines, and Italian soups and stews. “True, there are American trolley cars, the [row] houses are of the American architecture . . . the streets are paved with Baltimore cobbles. But the language is the language of Italy, the pleasure of the people of those of Italy and, by stretching the imagination, one might think he were in the land of King Victor Emmanuel.”

Over the past 50 years, Little Italy’s imminent death has been greatly exaggerated many times. But there has been no threat akin to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, with its suddenness, stay-at-home orders, and public closures, except the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. It is worth pointing out, however, Little Italy survived that, too. One way or another, the neighborhood has rolled with every punch, ever since its mid-century heyday. First, it was beckoning suburbs, school desegregation and white flight, and plans for an East-West expressway that would’ve destroyed the harbor neighborhoods. Then came the 1968 riots, which shuttered businesses in East and West Baltimore and hastened the departure of more city residents. By the 1970s, sharp declines in church and Catholic school attendance, not just in Baltimore, but across the country, presented existential challenges to the fabric of the neighborhood and, finally, cracks in the community’s stronghold did emerge. The looming aforementioned shuttering of St. Leo’s school, in particular, was widely predicted as Little Italy’s death knell. In 2007, the removal from the ministry of Fr. Michael Salerno, the parish’s beloved “Father Mike,” accused of molesting a boy when he was a brother at a New York church in 1970s, proved another punch to the gut for many people in Little Italy.

Still, the neighborhood and St. Leo’s persisted.

In fact, Little Italy not only withstood all those blows, but it has also always rebounded. Sometimes from just faith and good luck. At other times, by the dint of its own stubbornness and creativity. The same year that St. Leo’s school closed, the Inner Harbor opened and gave birth to the city’s tourism industry. The established Little Italy restaurants got a huge shot in the arm, while new ones opened in the mid-1980s, including Dalesio’s and the swanky Da Mimmo, attracting the likes of Tony Bennett, David Bowie, Faye Dunaway, Luciano Pavarotti, Stevie Wonder, Dustin Hoffman, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Selleck, and Johnny Depp at a time when Baltimore became a go-to set piece for mainstream Hollywood movies. (Named after original owner Domenico “Mimmo” Cricchio, who died in 2003, that restaurant, long an anchor, closed in January as owner Mary Ann Cricchio announced she was launching Da Mimmo Tours of Italy.)

Similarly, the opening of Camden Yards in the mid-’90s provided another major boost. The acclaimed, retro-style ballpark brought new legions from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington—every city with a Major League club, really—to the neighborhood all summer long as new restaurants opened up again.

LITTLE ITALY MAP

AS LITTLE ITALY ENCLAVES IN CITIES AROUND THE COUNTRY, INCLUDING THE MOTHER OF ALL LITTLE ITALY IN NEW YORK’S LOWER MANHATTAN, HAVE SHRUNK OR WITHERED COMPLETELY, BALTIMORE’S LITTLE ITALY REMAINS ROUGHLY THE SAME SIZE AS THE EARLY 1900S.

MAP KEY

1. ALDO’S RISTORANTE ITALIANO

2. ANGELI’S PIZZERIA

3. AMICCI’S OF LITTLE ITALY

4. BOCCE COURTS

5. CAFÉ GIA RISTORANTE

6. CHIAPPARELLI’S

7. DALESIO’S OF LITTLE ITALY

8. D’ALESANDRO HOUSE / YOSSITA’S COFFEE

9. GERMANO’S PIATTINI

10. ISABELLA’S BRICK OVEN PIZZA

11. JOE BENNY’S

12. LA SCALA RISTORANTE ITALIANO

13. LA TAVOLA

14. OSTERIA DA AMEDEO

15. OVENBIRD BAKERY

16. PANDOLA LEARNING CENTER

17. SABATINO’S

18. ORDER SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF ITALY LODGE

19. ST. LEO THE GREAT ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

20. VACCARO’S ITALIAN PASTRY SHOP

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