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      Will Baltimore’s Little Italy survive the coronavirus? Here’s how some restaurants are coping.

      Ray Alcaraz has been eating well during the pandemic. Homemade ravioli at Chiapparelli’s, the meatballs from Joe Benny’s, lemony veal piccata from Aldo’s, and of course, cannoli from Vaccaro’s: Alcaraz, who grew up in Little Italy, is on a one-man mission to patronize the neighborhood’s restaurants in crisis.

      “I have gone to almost every restaurant to get a meal and I’m still not done,” said Alcaraz, president of the promotion center for Little Italy.

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      There’s not much else to do but eat, these days, here, or anywhere else. The bocce court is empty, and so is the church, though the Italian tricolor bunting still hangs overhead, primed for celebration. “I sit on the corner with a couple of the neighborhood guys and watch nothing,” said Alcaraz. "The only activity is the food delivery people.”

      In a time when the pandemic is devastating restaurant businesses, ground zero in Baltimore is the nine-square-block patch of downtown where generations of Italians have made their home, and their livelihoods. The close-knit community has weathered crises from the Great Fire of 1904 to civil unrest in the 1960s and rising competition. Restaurants are Little Italy’s backbone. With the oldest dating back to the 1940s, the mostly family run eateries here have changed little in recent decades, even as other areas of the city morphed into dining hot spots.

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      Now, the abrupt end to dine-in service brought by the coronavirus has forced many into the 21st century.

      Some places are offering specials and advertising through Instagram. They’re making use of delivery apps and are appealing to the loyalty of longtime customers. Others are creating videos as part of #KeepTheLightsOn, the Maryland comptroller’s campaign to support local businesses.

      In a video shared on Facebook, Dominic Vaccaro demonstrated his technique for “wrangling” cannoli. Standing in front of a barn door he dubbed the “Vaccaro ranch,” he lunged after the tawny cannoli shell and trapped it beneath a cowboy hat. The concept was lighthearted, but Vaccaro closed with a message that was decidedly more serious: “We’ve been in business 64 years. Don’t let this be our last.”

      The day before Easter, the Vaccaro family packed up their famous desserts, driving around the region as far as Silver Spring to deliver their cannoli, a first for the pastry shop. They didn’t make a profit, but they got their treats on customers’ holiday tables for another year. “Tradition is so hard to keep as it is,” said Dominic’s mother, Maria, whose Italian born father-in-law started the family business years ago.

      Some old school customs have already taken a hit. St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, is usually a time to eat Vaccaro’s sfinci di San Giuseppe, a doughnut filled with ricotta. But this year, the coronavirus’ arrival put an abrupt halt to sales.

      A few restaurants are taking out personal loans to make payroll, and hoping that state and federal loans will come through for them. Dan Stewart, who runs Isabella’s Brick Oven with his nephew, is trying to avoid laying people off. “I’m borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.” He’s hoping for relief from the Paycheck Protection Program.

      Amiccis owner Scott Panian expanded the restaurant’s catering and delivery business after the unrest of 2015, when many customers became unwilling to venture downtown. His sales have dropped more than 50 percent — but the early preparation for carryout has helped. In recent weeks, staff have used social media to aggressively market daily specials — three courses for $20 or “two dinner Tuesdays.”

      Amiccis also uses apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub to deliver to customers. While some have criticized such companies and the hefty commissions they charge, Panian said he needs that business to survive.

      But even the carryout business comes with baggage. While the company takes precautions, it’s hard not to worry as he hands off bags to customers. “You feel this guilt as an owner. Am I putting people at risk?” Panian said. “You go home and put on the news and you worry about it.”

      Many are counting on the appetites of longtime customers. At Sabatino’s, regulars have come from as far as Baltimore County to pick up orders. “Our really good regulars I’ve seen every week,” said manager Lisa Morekas. Carryout business still doesn’t come close to pre-pandemic sales, but Morekas is undaunted.

      “We had a strong business going into this nightmare,” said Morekas, whose great Uncle Joe started it in 1955. “We have loyal customers. That's all you need.”

      Located across from what was once the bustling President Street train station, the neighborhood today called Little Italy became “100 percent Italian” in 1920s, says historian Suzanna Rosa Molino, author of Baltimore’s Little Italy: Heritage and History of The Neighborhood.

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      Italian immigrants like Morekas’ grandparents — many of whom had come to the U.S. together — lived in boarding houses there, gathering for weekly mass and celebrations at St. Leo’s, built at Exeter and Stiles streets in the 1880s as an all-Italian parish.

      It was “the neighborhood that had everything you needed in 9 square blocks,” said Alcaraz, who lives in Lutherville, but comes back every day to the neighborhood where he grew up. When Alcaraz was a kid in the 1960s and 70s, there was a pharmacy, sandwich shop, butcher and funeral home. His parents still reside in the house where his mom was born.

      To outsiders, perhaps the biggest draw were the neighborhood’s restaurants.

      Yale history professor Paul Freedman charts the rise of Italian-American cuisine in his book “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.” He found that these restaurateurs dropped traditional ingredients like organ meat and invented dishes like spaghetti and meatballs to accommodate American tastes. Such eateries were meant to appeal not to fellow immigrants, but to bohemian city dwellers of the era. “They’re not as fussy,” Freedman said. “They’re not going to say, ‘My grandmother in Amalfi makes this better than you.’”

      In the 1920s, Neapolitan baker Pasquale Chiapparelli opened a bakery on High Street where he sold some of the first pizzas in Baltimore. The bakery later became a restaurant; an ad for it in The Baltimore Sun explained in parentheses that pizzas were “Italian tomato pies.” Today, Chiapparelli’s is the neighborhood’s longest running eatery, though the menu includes much more than pizza.

      Before the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, Canton and other city neighborhoods developed their own dining scenes, Little Italy was more or less the only game in town. At Sabatino’s, regular guests included Little Italy’s most famous residents, the D’Alesandro family. “Tommy the Elder” — the father of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — was Baltimore mayor. Pelosi’s late brother, Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, “Tommy the Younger” served in that role too.

      In the 1970s and 80s, there were more than 20 eateries in Little Italy. Vince Culotta, Morekas’ father and owner of Sabatino’s, remembers that as the heyday. He enlarged the dining room at Sabatino’s from 125 to 250 and later 450 seats.

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      Recent years have seen numerous closings: Boccaccio closed in 2008 after the death of its owner; Vellegia’s, once the oldest restaurant in Little Italy, shuttered the same year. In 2013, Caesar’s Den, Rocco’s Capriccio and Della Notte all ceased operations. In January, so did Da Mimmo.

      With just a handful remaining, many believe the pandemic will kill even more.

      “I don't think everybody’s going to survive it and that’s scary,” said Panian. Though he’s determined to shepherd Amiccis through the current crisis, he’s aware of just how different the future could be. Will he ever use his upstairs dining room again? He’s not sure.

      Across the country, 40 percent of restaurants are currently closed due to the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association. In Maryland, that amounts to 4,500 businesses. Freedman predicts up to half will close permanently, with older diners reluctant to go out and younger diners lacking the funds to do so.

      In his book, “Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End,” James Beard Award winning author Kevin Alexander argued that the restaurant industry in the United States was oversaturated. He predicted a recession would close up to 30 percent of eateries that were already in a financially tenuous situation. In light of the coronavirus, he now places that percentage at 40-50 percent. “It’s going to be a real struggle,” he said.

      Yet some Little Italy institutions may be uniquely poised to weather the storm.

      While recent years have seen a dining culture dominated by Instagram and the quest for the latest trend, the aftermath of the crisis may see diners seeking out comforting and familiar foods they’ve eaten for years. “It was all about new, new, new for so long,” said Alexander. Post pandemic, diners may care less about innovative cuisine, and more about the people making their dinner at their favorite neighborhood spot.

      And in Little Italy, nostalgia is always on the menu. At Sabatino’s, old fashioned lace curtains adorn glass windows. The bookmaker’s salad, overflowing with shrimp and salami, tastes the same today as it did when it was invented in the 1970s — even when ordered for carryout. So does the cannoli at Vaccaro’s. It’s a consistency that produces both eye rolling and admiration.

      “We’re often criticized for doing the same old thing,” said Morekas. “That's who we are. That's what we do.”

      Regardless of the coronavirus, Morekas has no plans to stop. “When it's a family business, it’s your life. It’s your name,” Morekas said. “I’ve been here since 1983, what else am I going to possibly do at this stage of my life?”

      Her father, Vince Culotta, agrees. When anyone asks him about the future, he gives the same answer: “I’m going to sell spaghetti — no matter what.”

      Recommended on Baltimore Sun

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