Skills - and blades - honed over century

February 18, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez VTC

Nilo Vidi's old man could make a meat cleaver sing.

The dean of Baltimore's grinders, Nilo Vidi is the 63-year-old edge between two generations of Vidi knife men, and he remembers the days before monotone stainless steel, when a carbon-steel knife would throw out a range of notes as well as sparks when you held it against a sandstone wheel.

"Every position has a sound," he says. "The sound will tell you if you have the right bevel. You learn to grind by the sound and the feel."

That's the way Frank Monaldi learned the trade. At 39, he is one of the family's current crop of grinders -- his mother is Nilo's sister -- and he began fooling with knives as a kid on visits to his uncles' row house in Little Italy. "While they were watching us, they'd put us to work on the grindstone," said Mr. Monaldi.

Unable to find work after his discharge from the Navy in 1975, he decided to join the family business and apprenticed with his uncle, the late Pio Vidi.

"Uncle Pio would be in the other room when I was starting out, and he'd yell at me without even looking at what I was doing. He could hear that I was messing up. He'd say: 'Put that knife on straight!' It takes about two or three years to get good at it."

The Vidi family has been putting knives on straight against grindstones in Baltimore for almost 100 years. They began beveling blades and honing edges in a row house on Trinity Street in Little Italy and continue today in a pair of "sharp shops" in Hamilton.

It started with a letter.

A grinder name Collini had found success in the New World and wrote home to Pinzolo, Italy -- one of Europe's knife-grinding capitals -- to his friend Bartolo Vidi.

Explains Nilo Vidi: "Collini told my Uncle Bart: 'Come over to America, this is the place to grind knives.' So my uncle took his pushcart, put it on a boat and came to Baltimore in 1904."

Brother followed brother: After Bartolo in 1904 came Pietro (father of Nilo and Pio) in 1907, David in 1909 and Lino in 1912.

The brothers brought their wives and kids and made more kids in the old Italian neighborhood just east of the Inner Harbor, and soon the Vidis were established in the busy commerce of Baltimore's alleys. Among the men selling fruit from the back of carts, scavenging rags and junk with a horse and wagon, and collecting pennies for grinding an organ while a monkey danced on the end of a leash, were the Vidis.

"My father traveled Baltimore City on foot with a cart for years," said Nilo Vidi.

The Vidis repaired umbrellas, fixed pots and put an edge on any hunk of steel brought to them -- sharpening knives for housewives, chefs, carpenters and butchers from Dundalk to Pennsylvania Avenue.

In an old newspaper interview, Nilo's late brother, Pete, said he last pushed the cart in 1937. He remembered it this way: "I push [the cart] down the street and maybe I cover 20 miles in one day. When a lady hollers for me I stop, set [the cart] upright like this and I work the pedal. Like a sewing machine. The wheel goes around, you're in business. I walk those streets summers and winters. On a good warm day I make maybe $3. I charge 10 cents a pair of scissors, sometimes less."

One of Nilo's uncles was a specialist: "He wouldn't touch a knife, he was strictly a razor and scissors man. All he had was a tiny grinding stone. It was finer work. Everybody had a straight razor back them."

The grinding business changed along with America. Safety razors began replacing straight razors, fewer women were using scissors to sew at home, and a horse and wagon replaced the heavy wooden pushcart that the Vidis pushed through the narrow streets and alleys of Baltimore before World War II.

Nilo Vidi looked back on those times the other day, admiring a postcard his father had mailed back to his parents in Pinzolo in 1913. The picture shows Pietro Vidi, a big pipe in his mouth, standing in front of a horse-drawn grinding wagon.

Mr. Vidi squints at the faded script and translates his father's Italian. "I show you my horse," the card says. "This is the way we work here in this land."

In 1927, the year Mr. Vidi was born, the horse and wagon was replaced by a truck. That was the end of foot-pedaling; the truck's motor made the wheel turn.

Today the Vidi and Monaldi families rely almost strictly on restaurants and butchers for their business. Corner grocers who cut their own meat began fading during the 1960s, and few modern American families seek a professional edge for their kitchen knives.

Nilo Vidi's oldest client is Attman's Delicatessen on East Lombard Street, owned by Seymour Attman. "My father used to sharpen knives for Seymour's father, Harry," he said.

The families say they are not in competition, that the Monaldis have their routes and the Vidis theirs.

What eateries and other businesses are actually doing is renting knives from the families, who own them and keep them sharp. The rates are $1.25 to $1.50 per blade per week. Customers are all over, from Bertha's in Fells Point to Marconi's downtown and even down to the guys who filet fish at the Jessup Farmers Market. The families also sharpen lawn mower blades, the occasional pizza cutter and utensils you wouldn't think need sharpening, like spatulas from the Sip & Bite diner on Boston Street.

Mr. Monaldi expects his 12-year-old son, Steve, to take up the family business, hoping that he will grow up to sharpen carving knives for the next generation of Attmans. And Nilo Vidi expects his son David to give him another grandchild any day, perhaps a boy.

"Once again," he says, his eyes sparking, "there will be the Vidi brothers!"

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