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Big man in Little Italy Tom Iacoboni dishes on his love of food and family

Tom Iacoboni at Cafe Gia
Tom Iacoboni at Cafe Gia - Dara Bunjon
For a number of years I’ve been on the Tom Iacoboni’s email listserve on all things Italian.

The listserve started when Tom managed the mailing list for two Italian organizations, and has now grown to more than 6,000 subscribers who receive his notifications on events, job opportunities and fundraisers. He chaired Little Italy’s Columbus Day parade for 10 years and is involved in numerous Italian organizations, including the Sons of Italy and the Italian-American Civic Club.

As I was preparing to meet him for my next "Lunch With" profile, I realized that I had only met Tom once, for a fleeting moment, years ago. As I crossed Eastern Avenue, I saw a trim, well-dressed gentleman with thick dark hair and average height standing outside and talking on his smart phone. The man, whom I assumed was Tom, gave me a big smile as I approached. 

So I leaned in and kissed him Italian style, on both cheeks. We walk into Café Gia and within moments the real Tom Iacoboni entered the restaurant. It turns out I kissed Umar Hameed, a gentleman who probably thought he had met me before and went along not to embarrass himself.

So I greeted the “real” Tom Iacoboni with Italian kisses on the cheeks. Looking at the real Tom, who is more than six feet tall and with salt-and-pepper hair, I laughed at the whole situation.

Dara: If you could have lunch with someone living, dead, or fictional, who would it be?
Tom: My grandfather, a big man physically, died when he was 76 years old. As a youngster, we lived three doors down, but then my family moved to Lutherville when I was 13 years. I never really got a chance to sit down and really talk with him. Being in the same business I have lots of questions for him.

Iacoboni is president of Baltimore construction business Iacoboni Site Specialists Inc., which performs demolition, and sediment control. It started with Tom’s grandfather, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Abruzzi region in central Italy at the age of 16.

Not speaking the language was a huge barrier, but he found work in the construction business. He realized he had to learn the language and the construction business to be successful. He did both, advancing and eventually opening his own company.

In those days, the Iacoboni family lived near 33rd Street, though his grandfather belonged to St. Leo’s church in Little Italy. His grandfather Americanized the family and didn’t allow Italian to be spoken in the house. He never did learn to read or write in English.

Dara: What food can disappear tomorrow and you wouldn’t miss?
Tom: Orange roughy can disappear. I like fish, I eat a lot of fish but this doesn’t taste like other fish. It has actually has an orange taste to me. Like President Bush’s dislike for broccoli, just don’t make it for me.

Café Gia
 does a booming business for lunch in their cozy corner restaurant on Eastern Avenue. Co-owner Gia Daniella Blatterman came by for our order. Tom ordered the Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and eggplant alla parmigiana. I went with the salad special of the day of grilled steak and avocado.  

Dara: What is the best dish that you cook?
Tom:  I don’t cook. Well, not since college where I pretty much starved myself and weighed 120 pounds. Once I got married and my wife cooked I gained 10 to 15 pounds a year until I got too large. When I was 30, I started to work out and gave up my addiction for chocolate. Once in a blue moon I will cook chicken or steak on the grill.

Dara: Truffle oil?
Tom: What’s truffle oil? I love olive oil. I don’t use butter. I always use olive oil. In fact, give me plain pasta topped with a quality extra virgin olive oil and that is a meal.

Dara: What was your culinary epic fail?
Tom: I’m involved with numerous community and business associations. I had a cookout for high school kids from the Community School in Remington. They were invited to come enjoy the day, go swimming, play games.  I was grilling the chicken and the pieces I ate seemed sufficiently cooked but that was not the case. It seems the chicken was undercooked and everyone just filled up on the sides.

Co-owner and Gia's mother Giovanna Aquia Blatterman looks back at Cafe Gia's opening in 2009. “Tom Iacoboni came in and had dinner and before he left he bought $500 worth of gift certificates to give out. It was like we won the lottery. In the early days we named numerous dishes after our customers and Tom liked frutti di mare, a version without onion and garlic.” The dish was named for Tom Iacoboni and was immortalized in the City Paper’s 2009 Best Of issue.

Tom, first and foremost is a family man, who met his wife Jacque because his sister was dating Jacque's brother. She is half-Irish and half-Czech. Tom, who is in his late 50s, is the proud father of three college-age kids, two boys and a girl.  

Dara: What has been your most memorable meal?
Tom: The evening I got engaged, we dined at the Peppermill [in Lutherville]. That was 31 years ago and [I'm] happy to see they are still open.

Dara: What is your guilty food pleasure?
Tom: We eat a lot in Little Italy and as a treat we will go over to Vacarro’s Italian Pastry after dinner for their gelato. It is the best gelato, like going to Italy.

Blatterman then asked if we wanted dessert. Since I had a salad I thought I would indulge and choose the lemon ricotta cake made by Giovanna’s husband and Tom ordered one as well. 

Dara: Oldest thing you have in your fridge?
Tom: There are always lots of leftovers in the refrigerator, could be a couple weeks old. As I told you earlier, I am involved in many organizations. I am at many meetings so I grab something to eat at the meetings or on the way home and as a result, there are numerous to-go containers.

Dara Bunjon has a passion for food – its origins, preparation and consumption. Her passion became her business Dara Does It. Her rants, raves, reviews, reminiscences, and recipes can be found regularly on her Dining Dish and Dara Does It blogs. Read her last Lunch With feature here
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