Early pizza days in Little Italy, at 25 cents a pie

April 19, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The way Mary DeNittis tells the story, pizza arrived in Baltimore in August 1929 when her husband made pies in his bakery in Little Italy.

The food that is today as common as a hamburger or ham sandwich was exotic then. It wasn't much known outside the Little Italy neighborhood where an 11-inch pie sold for a quarter.

At 89, DeNittis sits in her High Street dining room and recalls her family's years in the food business.

"My late husband Joseph was a baker. He was from Italy, a town called Peschici. He came to this country in 1920, lived for a while in New York, then Philadelphia, where he worked with a German baker who taught him to make sweets.

"Then he moved to Baltimore. We were married in 1926 and the next year the big Bond Bakery opened on North Avenue. He was one of the first ones hired. He worked there from January 1927 to September of '29. He made $27 a week," she recalls.

It was during the weeks of the summer of 1929 that Joe DeNittis quit his job and opened a bakery at 246 S. Exeter St. At first he didn't tell his wife, saying only that he was laid off from Bond.

"I can remember. I was in church. There was a devotion, a procession to the Blessed Mother for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I dropped in a 50- cent piece. I'd have never done that if I would have known my husband was going out on his own," DeNittis says.

"He worked all week to fill a showcase. He opened for business one Sunday morning. You can imagine how curious the people were down here. Word of a new business spreads around. I opened the door and was stunned. His case was filled with all these sweets -- the cheese cakes, the eclairs, the cream puffs, the cookies, the buns. I didn't know my husband had a talent like that," she says.

For the pizzas, he used a wood-burning oven at a neighborhood bakery owned by his in-laws, Maria and Salvatore Scelsi, who for many years had their own place on South High Street. Until it closed in 1961, it was one of the neighborhood's most respected bakeries.

"That first summer the pizza really took off. One day my husband took in $80. I used to sit on the side entrance. I'd peel and cut up the garlic and skin the nice fresh tomatoes. Then grate the hard cheese. In those days we didn't use the soft cheese," she says.

As popular as pizza was that first summer, Joe DeNittis' bakery did not survive the great Depression of the 1930s.

"Pizza was sort of a seasonal item back then. There was a man who walked through the streets selling it from a board strapped around his neck. It was popular in the summer but not so much in the winter," she says.

So, the pizza business died in 1932 and was reinstituted in October 1936 when Joe and Mary DeNittis opened another bakery. In the intervening years, Mary worked as a seamstress and Joe for other bakeries.

"During World War II, we had trouble getting the rationed supplies. The ration board uptown didn't know what pizza was. They didn't know if it was dessert, a snack or a meal. Finally they made a ruling that it would be classified as food for a meal. That saved us. The servicemen were coming into the neighbor hood. The restaurants here were getting popular. The Roma was the first," she says.

After the war, the DeNittis dropped out of the pizza-making business. She went back to the tailor shop and Joe to a baker's. Then on January 20, 1950, they opened a restaurant and pizzeria on Eastern Avenue.

"I got help and advice from Nancy D'Alesandro, the mayor's wife. She was the mayor behind the mayor. To this day she is one of my best friends," DeNittis says.

Soon her place was catching on with Hopkins students out on a date. It was a favorite spot after 2 a.m. when the bars closed. Downtown office workers ordered their lunches here. By 1958, Joe and Mary, along with their son Blaise, had moved to a building at 906 Trinity St., where the business remains today, though owned by another family.

Joe and Mary were inseparable until his death in 1979. "There isn't a day I don't think of Joe and the marriage we had. My wedding ring still fits. Our initials are on it. Only the little orange blossoms have worn off," she says.

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