Everything gets noticed in Little Italy A sense of identity: The close-knit community, split over a wall and two boccie courts, has seen accusations, a lawsuit -- and questions about the neighborhood's future.

March 10, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The wall behind the Da Mimmo restaurant in Little Italy is so small it's hardly worth a notice -- yet it has engaged the attention of the mayor, the restaurant owner, the parish priest and an avid group of boccie players.

As one of Baltimore's last ethnic enclaves strives to preserve its way of life, nothing in Little Italy seems too small to fight over -- and nothing goes unnoticed.

Facing a test of its ability to survive, this tiny residential neighborhood that welcomes a half-million visitors each year is beginning to show the strain.

Little Italy already is walled off by mountainous condominiums to the west, public housing and general decay to the north and east. Just a few blocks to the south the residents see a new threat -- a multimillion-dollar development whose owner wants casino gambling on the waterfront.

Despite the odds, Little Italy is still one of the closest neighborhoods in town.

And there are signs of renewal: One hometown man has returned to reopen an old drugstore, while a millionaire and his wife have built a palatial house with marble floors and an indoor swimming pool near the neighborhood church.

The old neighborhood also has some of the most defiantly protective residents you'll find anywhere.

Turf and pride have fueled a series of neighborhood disputes: residents battling restaurateurs, street fights between neighbors, even a defamation suit -- and neighbors building a little wall to make a big point.

The 6-foot-high wall was easy to build.

The 5,000 bricks and 10 tons of sand came free from contractors who grew up in Little Italy. And the elderly men who laid the bricks in the summer of 1994 had built many walls before.

The fight leading to the wall began three years ago, when community leaders wanted to build two courts on a sliver of city land off Stiles Street for playing boccie, an Italian game sometimes compared with lawn bowling -- but without the pins.

The land is behind Da Mimmo, a restaurant as well-known for its chef-owner Mimmo Cricchio -- who was the 1994 Maryland restaurateur of the year -- as it is for the people who have eaten there: Luciano Pavarotti, Anne Bancroft and Joel Grey to name a few.

But in the fall of 1993, neighborhood leaders say, they were double-crossed by Mr. Cricchio and his wife, Mary Ann.

They accuse the Cricchios of telling city officials that the community no longer wanted two boccie courts, that only one would be adequate so the couple could make room for outdoor seating at the restaurant. "The neighborhood went ballistic," said Joseph Scalia, a longtime resident and boccie player who can see the boccie courts from his front window.

The Cricchios say it was all a misunderstanding. They deny ever wanting to expand their restaurant or sabotage the courts.

But their neighbors never believed them. The feud escalated, and finally, in early 1994, they all squared off at St. Leo's Catholic Church -- the parish where Little Italy residents have been baptized and married for more than 100 years. The priest refereed.

"Almost everyone came out," recalls the Rev. Oreste Pandola, pastor of St. Leo's. "Nobody raised their voices, because I was there. A priest has a calming effect."

But the dispute was never settled.

Finally, several senior citizens -- conveniently schooled in the game of boccie and the trade of bricklaying -- decided to teach the restaurant owners a Little Italy civics lesson: Never cross your neighbors.

"The community wanted to put up a wall to show [Mr. Cricchio] doesn't own the whole damn thing. He can't take the boccie court," said Mr. Scalia, 68, who comes from the same town in Italy -- Palermo, on Sicily -- as Mr. Cricchio.

The wall went up.

The Cricchios fought back. They hired a lawyer. They filed a zoning appeal shortly after the wall was built. They even got an audience with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke last fall in his stately conference room.

"It was a very dirty thing they did," Mr. Cricchio said of the wall builders.

The appeal awaits a hearing by the zoning board. The board's chairwoman, Gia Blattermann, has recused herself from the case. Mrs. Blattermann has lived in Little Italy for 40 years. And her husband was the man who got the permit for the wall.

Despite all the bad blood, the Cricchios -- who live in a glamorous new home next to their High Street restaurant -- insist that the feud has not left them angry at their neighbors.

Little Italy, said Mrs. Cricchio, "is just like a close-knit family. Not everyone is going to agree. You disagree, but we're not going to leave the family."

The family

For nearly a century, if you lived in Little Italy, you'd never have to leave the neighborhood to worship, get an education, find a spouse, get married, shop for dinner, pick out your gravestone or have your funeral.

In a neighborhood of rowhouses, every child had 100 mothers and no one's business was his own.

It once extended from the Inner Harbor east to Broadway, and an imaginary line walled off Little Italy from the rest of Baltimore.

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