Ribs, tattoos find homey fit in cafe

AT HOME WITH THE EXOTIC

March 04, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

You become a little disoriented after a while in the Cafe Tattoo.

You lose your bearings amid the aromas of tangy ribs and steaming gumbo, amid the sounds of a smooth-tongued tourist from England and the beer-and-chaser fellows chortling in anticipation of their trip to see the Grateful Dead.

Then a silver-haired man in a gray suit strolls in for dinner. He sits in the exotic glow of red neon from the window and orange spray from the sinking sun, and you wonder whether this might be someplace other than Belair Road in northeast Baltimore.

But the phone rings, and Rick Catalano answers with a piercing song: "Taa-toooo."

This is Belair Road after all.

The Cafe Tattoo is in the 4800 block, just north of Moravia Road. The place gets its name from the vocation of Elayne Catalano, who opened the bar and restaurant with her husband in 1984. She not only created the recipes for their award-winning chili and ribs, but also operates a tattoo studio upstairs.

Their 22-year-old daughter, Jennifer, cooks and waits tables.

Behind the bar with her husband, Elayne Catalano is the quiet one, the artistic one. She says that, as a former art major, she considers skin her canvas. She doesn't talk much about her artwork, but makes it clear she is selective about her clients and the designs that she creates.

Mr. Catalano has tattoos of tigers on one shoulder and dragons on the other. On his forearm is a Siamese fighting fish, a ferocious species that he says does battle in Thailand to this day.

Mrs. Catalano calls herself the "dark lady," because she works at night. She has moved her Dark Lady Skin Illustrations up and down Belair Road since opening the business in 1976.

Years ago, she tattooed a heart on the chest of "Bubby" Navarria, who worked the door for the bar's previous owner. Nowadays, he is an occasional customer at the cafe.

Sitting on a bar stool, Mr. Navarria lifts his T-shirt to unveil the heart and its inscription -- "I love Susie."

Mr. Navarria says Mrs. Catalano tried to talk him out of it just in case the relationship faltered.

Sure enough, he says, Susie is no longer in the picture.

Mr. Navarria says he lives in Highlandtown but is drawn to the Cafe Tattoo partly because he likes his old neighborhood. "My mother had a farm down the street before it was all built up," he says.

"There are good people in the neighborhood," Mr. Navarria says. "That's why I keep coming back."

Mr. Catalano, 41, grew up a couple of blocks from here, and he and his wife live a couple of blocks from here today. They close their bar-restaurant-tattoo studio every December and travel to faraway states and other countries. But they always come home to Belair Road.

"We could do the same thing we're doing here somewhere else," Mr. Catalano says. "We could open a bar in the Keys. We could open a bar in California. We could open a bar in New York.

"But it's nice here. It's got that feel. Everything is here I could possibly want."

Mrs. Catalano lived in various Baltimore neighborhoods as a girl, including this one for a while. All her adult life this has been home. Gardenville, it says on the map. "Belair Road," people here say. It takes her as long as two hours to walk the half block to the Woodlea Bakery; there are that many people to greet.

She looks a lot like Cher, but her husband looks nothing like Sonny. He reminds people of George Carlin, and there is some of that hippie, dippy Weatherman style in his bar routines.

He books bands Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays -- jazz, rock, mostly blues. "We don't get nothing Top 40," he says, "nothing mainstream. If it's different, we'll try it."

He has even tried a classical woodwind quintet, made up of customers who occasionally eat here in tuxedos on their way to performances. Three times they've played at the Cafe Tattoo, in costume, and each time they've packed the place. Mr. Catalano billed those nights "winds and ribs."

He and his wife and daughter throw parties from time to time, such as last night's Mardi Gras celebration and last year's triskaidekaphobia bash. That means fear of the number 13, so the party was on Friday the 13th, naturally.

They walked a black cat across the doorway before everyone entered. They kept a box of mirrors in back so everyone could break one. They encouraged people to open umbrellas indoors and spill salt.

"Anything different," Mr. Catalano says. "Life's too short to keep doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over."

Unless, of course, that thing is the Cafe Tattoo, where you can imagine a sunset in the Keys or Mardi Gras in New Orleans -- and never set foot off Belair Road.

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