The unsinkable Sons of Italy

Dan Rodricks

January 09, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

It should be noted that, on the day the Sons of Italy barge sank, Mike Girolamo had planned to make crab soup. He had all the ingredients in his hands when he arrived at the foot of Central Avenue and found the clubhouse slipping into the harbor.

That was a sad day.

All around the old neighborhood, you could hear a wise guy say: "The barge sleeps with the crabs."

All of a sudden, the boys from the Little Italy lodge of the Sons of Italy ("Sunzitlee," as they say in East Baltimore) were without a home. Sensing the worst, Mike Girolamo rushed off to St. Leo's Church and told the priest what had happened. The priest let him use the telephone to sound an alert and the kitchen to cook his crab soup. (Sure, the barge had sunk. Sure, it was a catastrophe. But no way could Mike waste the crab.)

It was a tragic day in Little Italy.

The barge, which had served as clubhouse for the members and their families, was headed for the bottom of the harbor. There was no stopping it. The sinking threatened the very future of the Little Italy lodge, a prospect that compounded the tragedy. Little Italy without the Sons of Italy would be like the St. Patrick's Day Parade without Hyman Pressman.

The barge, purchased from a contractor who had used it to train future carpenters, was a unique gathering place, a fantastic concept: The only floating Sons of Italy lodge in the United States. The building on the barge housed a kitchen and a dance floor. Lou Mann's orchestra played there. They had New Year's Eve parties on the barge. The lodge sponsored lots of dinners, too, with wonderful door prizes, like bottles of King Syrup.

hTC Most memorable of all was Girolamo's cooking, and his most famous dish: The crab-and-linguini marinara. His recipe he shared with no one.

Girolamo cooked the crab, shell and all, in the spicy marinara. By the time it was served, the steaming, red sauce had become laced with succulent feathers of crab meat loosened during a long, aromatic simmer. It was served over high piles of linguini. There was, of course, more meat hidden in the shells and the claws. So, after packing the pasta away, guests would have the opportunity to suck aggressively at the claws and legs, getting marinara sauce all over their hands and arms. If you thinking picking at steamed crabs is a messy endeavor, try picking at crabs in a quarter-inch of Mike Girolamo's marinara sauce.

But it was worth the mess. It was great fun.

That, to me, was the worst part of the sinking of the barge. Girolamo didn't have a kitchen.

Except, of course, the one in his home.

Which is where I found him last night.

He was experimenting with a new dish, a special dish he's devised for a special event this coming Sunday. That's the day of the "Gala Grand Opening" of the Little Italy lodge's new home on Pratt Street, just up from Velleggia's Restaurant and directly behind the neighborhood's boccie courts. (The guy who planned a Sons of Italy lodge with direct access to boccie courts should get a design award.)

The old barge sank in 1986 and the Little Italy lodge has been raising money for the new clubhouse ever since. They held fund-raising dances and dinners. They sponsored bus trips to vacation spots. They signed up lots of new members. "We sold chances on all kinda things," Girolamo said. "We raffled off a coat."

"A fur coat?"

"No, an all-weather coat," he said. "And you know the rest stop on Interstate 95, just before you get to Washington? We used to go there and give away coffee, orange juice and all kinda' buns. The women made them Italian cookies. We gave it away but we made more money than we could have by charging for the stuff. People gave us donations. Everything went to the new home."

I asked Girolamo about this new dish he was devising for Sunday's gala.

"Chicken scampi," is what he called it. He wants a chicken dish that tastes like shrimp. "Chicken breast is kinda' bland," Girolamo said. "I'm trying for a shrimp flavor."

I asked how the experiment went.

"I just ate it. It's excellent."

I asked how he fixed it.

He wouldn't say. Girolamo is always very guarded when it comes to recipes. "I'll tell you one thing," he said. "If I use wine, I don't use lemon. If I use lemon, I don't use wine."

What's the difference?

The boys from the Little Italy lodge have a new home, and this one doesn't float. Thus, it cannot sink. (And just to make sure, everyone will be going to mass at St. Leo's Sunday morning.)

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