SOME SAY A GREAT MEAL starts with the eyes, which would be one explanation for the perpetual line in front of the display case at Di Pasquale’s in Highlandtown. A rainbow of colors bursts through the glass. Red grape tomatoes mixed with white balls of mozzarella and green basil leaves mirror the colors of the Italian flag. Bright purple octopus tentacles mingle with muted potatoes and fennel. Jet-black olives conjure visions of a moonless Tuscan night.
Others say it’s through the nose that a true epicurean experience begins, which could also explain that line. The aroma of focaccia bread baking at 600 degrees in the imported pizza oven fills the small dining area and narrow aisles with a scent so alluring it’s impossible to ignore. The rich smell of provolone and 30-month aged prosciutto seems to be ingrained in the walls, present even when the slicer isn’t running.
“You go in and it feels like Italy,” says Felicia Zannino-Baker, a Highlandtown art-gallery owner who has frequented the market and cafe all her life. “It smells like I’m in Italy. It sounds like I’m in Italy. It’s about all the senses.”
Ever since 23-year-old Luigi Di Pasquale opened a small corner store on Claremont Street in 1914, Di Pasquale’s has been a fixture in the neighborhood. But after a oneblock move to Gough Street in 1988, its popularity exploded in the years following, and it has become much more. For some, it’s a foodie destination for Italian classics such as eggplant Parm and pasta Bolognese, homemade pizza, and gourmet sandwiches you can hardly fit your mouth around. For others, it’s a spot where they can pop in to pick up fresh produce, bread, or a bottle of wine for dinner at home. And for still others, it’s a gathering place for locals to gossip, discuss sports and politics, or most of all, reminisce about the good old days.
In other words, it’s become an institution
“I’m Italian, and coming here gives me a chance to express my ethnic heritage,” says retired Baltimore County Judge Lawrence Daniels (“In here, I’m Lorenzo Daniele,” he says in his best Old-World accent.) “I’m here with a lot of other like-minded people. Good friends, great people, great food. Joey’s the best.”
Joey is 61-year-old Joe Di Pasquale, the third-generation managing partner of the family-owned business. He’s a constant presence behind the counter, taking orders from customers, barking them out to employees, greeting newcomers as if they’re old-timers and old-timers as if they’re kin. He grew up in the business sweeping floors, stocking shelves, and delivering everything from beer nuts to beef jerky and pickled pigs’ feet to bars and houses in the area. Since taking over the retail operation, he’s spearheaded its transition from neighborhood grocery and convenience store to culinary jewel. Now, he’s leading it through its biggest change yet: Di Pasquale’s is leaving Highlandtown.
Before you drop your cannoli, know that when it moves sometime after Easter, it’s going just 1.2 miles away, to a larger, newer space in Brewers Hill. Still, when the news broke last year, it felt like a seismic shift to those for whom the store is a part of everyday life.
“I can say with all my heart that I will miss them,” says 73-year-old Ida Longo, who’s been a regular since she arrived in Highlandtown from Italy a half-century ago. “I buy fresh bread and pasta and lunch meat. The mortadella is the best. It reminds me of when we were growing up in Italy. It has the same smell. Even if he’s going to move a little farther down the street, we are never going to leave Di Pasquale’s. We start with them and we die with them.”
How’s that for customer loyalty? Sabrina Di Pasquale, née Parravano, knows how Longo feels. She grew up in the neighborhood going to the original location before she fell for Joe and married him 29 years ago. She’s worked side by side with him—and his sisters, his brother, her sister, their children, the list goes on—for 33 years.
“At first, I didn’t think it was a very good idea,” she says of the move. “Not that we wouldn’t do well, but I didn’t want to leave the location. It has such wonderful memories. But I’m excited now. It’s not like the family is leaving Highlandtown. My son just bought a house in the neighborhood, my mom still lives in the neighborhood, my brother and sister still live it the neighborhood. We own property in the neighborhood. We’re still very connected to Highlandtown. We’re only a mile down the street. We’re not going to forget it.”
A PAINTING OF a serious-looking, older Luigi Di Pasquale hangs prominently in the Gough Street dining room. It’s almost as if he’s watching over his descendants, ensuring that they’re not screwing up what he started.
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