It is through dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of small acts of friendship, Michael Ditter will tell you, that Gypsy's Cafe near Hollins Market came into being.
And so when he calls it a neighborhood restaurant, he doesn't just mean the neighbors come there to eat -- although they do -- he means the neighborhood is part of the restaurant.
Take the story of how the menu came into being:
"At first," he says, "there were a lot of different ideas about what we were going to do. People would come by and say, 'Well, what are you going to serve? What kind of menu are you going to have?' And we really didn't know. We had an idea we wanted to lean toward seafood and old recipes that we've all loved and such.
"So we just kept saying to people, 'I tell you what. If there's something you'd like to get, just bring by a recipe.' And that's what people did. They just kept dropping off recipes. They'd make a sandwich at home and they'd bring it up for us to try and say, 'Well, if you like this, I'll give you the recipe.' And they'd bring crab dip or shrimp dip or whatever.
"And that's how we formulated it. It was born of everybody's grandmothers and aunts and uncles and neighbors bringing stuff by like a potluck. And out of that potluck we just chose the menu."
Gypsy's Cafe opened two weeks ago in West Baltimore on the same square as the Cultured Pearl and the Telltale Hearth. It began as the idea of Joanne Whitely (the name Gypsy's is taken from an old nickname of hers) who has been buying and restoring old buildings in the neighborhood for nearly two decades. As the owner of the building, formerly a house, she had a longtime dream of seeing it turned into a restaurant.
Her son, Edward Whitely, who has worked for several years in the restaurant business, most recently at the Chart House downtown, caught her dream, and last January he quit school and began work on the building.
Michael Ditter, who lives nearby, teamed up with Mr. Whitely when they both worked on the board of the Sowebo arts festival this year. "I had just finished renovating my house and was looking for another project. We started coming up with ideas for the restaurant together and I ended up renovating this restaurant."
ZTC Mr. Ditter, who coincidentally has worked in several Howard County restaurants including the Columbia Inn, became a partner and now manages the dining room while Mr. Whitely is the chef.
The dining room has a black tin ceiling, burgundy walls and forest green wainscoting. There are two working fireplaces and in the center is an antique bar from an old tavern down at Camden Yards. There are Aubrey Bodine prints on the walls.
"We've done a lot of recycling to put the place together," Mr. Ditter says. "We've taken chairs from thrift stores and then had an artist tortoise-shell them. All the local artisans and all the local carpenters have come by and donated their time and their knowledge in helping us to put the place together aesthetically and structurally."
There is an outdoor terrace walled in with a fence covered with morning glories in full bloom. The terrace and dining room seat 40 people each.
The lunch menu, which is also offered as light fare throughout the day, included salads, soups and both hot and cold sandwiches. The dinner menu includes seafood linguine, New York strip steak in bordelaise sauce, steamed mussels, pasta shells stuffed with five cheeses, and Hollins skewer with different vegetables and meats served en brochette. Shrimp dip, an old Eastern Shore recipe, is served as a hot appetizer with French bread.
Each day the restaurant serves two or three kinds of fresh fish -- salmon, tuna, mahi mahi, swordfish -- marinated and grilled or blackened and served either plain or with different herb butters.
"For dinner we chose to go just a little lighter," Mr. Ditter says. "We're trying to keep off the heavy sauces and oils. We're serving smaller portions that people can finish and it's not going to cost them an arm and a leg. Currently all our entree prices are under $10."
Everything possible is made from scratch including the desserts, which are made by Mr. Whitely's grandmother in Frederick. They include rum butter cake, chocolate torte, cheesecake and hot brownies with mint chocolate ice cream.
Sunday brunch includes bacon and eggs, salmon on croissant with hollandaise and fresh-baked muffins.
Gypsy's Cafe is located at 1103 Hollins St. The hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. The telephone number is 625-9310.
Jimmy Schmidt still looks like a kid, even at age 36 and after 14 years in the restaurant business, but he's been called -- by no less than Craig Claiborne -- one of the top chefs in the country.
Food and Wine magazine placed him on its Honor Roll of American Chefs. Cook's magazine included him in its Who's Who of American Cooking. House Beautiful called him "an American star."