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New Businesses Say "Buon Giorno" to Baltimore's Little Italy

Isabella's Pizza co-owner Nick Harris. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Isabella's Pizza co-owner Nick Harris. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Baltimore’s Little Italy has always been known as the place to go for a cannoli, your 19th viewing of “Cinema Paradiso,” and to watch a round of bocce.
But as younger residents move to the area and more money flows into nearby Harbor East, new businesses are opening up to cater to them while existing ones are making upgrades so they can compete for visitors.
An Asian restaurant will open in the former Velleggia’s Italian Restaurant spot – a neighborhood staple for more than 50 years. A made-to-order wine shop will open in the building that once held Mama Cellina’s. A farm-to-table eatery will join two other restaurants that have recently opened in Little Italy’s periphery. And a contemporary, black-and-white themed bed and breakfast opened in August.
“The restaurants have benefited from Harbor East, bringing in new customers and attracting people,” says Lou Mazzulli Jr., president of the Little Italy Business Association. "Around here, we call it Little Italy South,” he says of Harbor East. The area is home to a new Four Seasons Baltimore, upscale condos and swanky restaurants. 
One of the newest additions to Little Italy is Eagle House, which will feature Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisine, including sushi. Owner Kong Chen, who also owns Federal Hill’s, is spending $300,000 to renovate the former Velleggia’s space. He says he hopes the 300-seat restaurant will open in a couple of months and to secure a liquor license down the road. Terry Coffman II closed Velleggia's in Little Italy in late 2008, after filing for bankruptcy protection. 
Of course, Asian restaurants aren’t entirely foreign the area, home of India Rasoi. Having a variety of restaurants – and not just Italian – brings new faces to the area, Mazzulli says. Max's Empanadas opened in 2010 and Pacific Coast Dining Co. began serving up Thai, Greek and Mexican cuisine last year. 
Besides the traditional restaurants that have been a Little Italy mainstay, smaller establishments like Isabella’s Brick Oven and Panini are also vying for the attention of hungry visitors.
“When we considered opening down here, we saw a real need for a pizza place,” says co-owner Dan Stewart. “There were plenty of white tablecloth restaurants like Chiapparelli’s and Sabatino’s, but no real pizza joints.”
Stewart says he has been working with other restaurant owners to add outdoor seating and coordinate on promotions.
“Last year, we all got together during the Baltimore Grand Prix and got a permit from the city to have tables outside of our restaurants,” says Stewart. It joins Amicci’s, Café Gia and Germano’s in offering outdoor dining.
Stewart and others are working with the city to have the Columbus Day Parade end four blocks past its normal stopping point, which would put it right in Little Italy. In 2011, the parade stopped at Columbus Piazza, which is on 338 South President Street, which borders the east end of Little Italy.
Some long-awaited area businesses are coming to fruition.
Monica Beeman, a full-time entrepreneurial advocate, has been working over the past two years to finalize funding for her business, Vines to Vino. Funding challenges have delayed the opening, but Beeman says she hopes to open the make-your-own wine business by the summer.
She says she hopes to raise $250,000 to open in her “dream spot” at 300 Albemarle St., the former spot of Mama Cellina’s, near La Tavola restaurant.  
The location near downtown and Harbor East will hopefully attract an upscale clientele.
“The line between Harbor East and Little Italy is blurring, it’s not a definitive line, but everyone is vying for everyone’s business and retail location,” Beeman says.
Sandwiched between Little Italy and Harbor East is the Bagby building, which houses Vino Rosina, Bagby Pizza Co. and Ten Ten, which opened in November. Ten Ten Owners David and Jane Smith will open farm-to-table restaurant Fleet Street Kitchen in the spring as part of Bagby Restaurant Group. Jane Smith oversees construction and design and husband David Smith is CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.
Fleet Street will be under the command of Chris Becker, the former chef at the Wine Market.
“Fleet Street is going to be more upscale, and more focused on local products,” says Tim Riley, COO and beverage director for the Bagby Restaurant Group.
Pork, chicken and duck will be coming from Parkton’s Ferguson Family Farms and beef will come from Piedmont Ridge in White Hall.
As the economy slowly picks up, there are still opportunities available for would-be entrepreneurs who want to transform row homes into new businesses.
Bill Main and Tonia Edwards opened BlancNoir bed and breakfast in August, after spending about $300,000 to modernize 210 S. High St.  Edwards says the couple opened the four-room property in Little Italy hoping to get travelers who want an alternative to the big chain hotels in Harbor East. Black staircases lead to the rooms while the foyer features black-and-white checkers. 
The couple also operates a Segway tours business out of the property’s garage.
Joe Campitelli, owner of a row home on the corner of Stiles and South Exeter Street, has been in discussion with several potential purchasers.
The spot has lain vacant for years, but over the past several months, he’s spoken with would-be buyers, all of whom had different plans. Ideas included an Italian sub shop, a café, a cheese shop, a bakery, a yoga studio, a spot for physical rehabilitation of senior citizens and even an insurance office.
“We’ve had lots of inquiries, and each person who comes to look at the space has a different idea of what they’d do with it,” said Campitelli. “I’m sure we’ll find the right person soon.” 

John Frizzera is a freelance writer and native Baltimorean. He's written for a variety of print and online publications.
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