Maria D. Velleggia, 89, founded restaurant in Little Italy with husband

June 20, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Maria D. Velleggia, whose cooking skills helped transform a small corner tavern into a landmark Italian restaurant, died in her sleep Sunday in her apartment above Velleggia's Restaurant at High and Pratt streets in Baltimore's Little Italy. She was 89.

Mrs. Velleggia and her late husband, Enrico, a stonemason, got their start in the restaurant business when they opened the Friendly Tavern in 1937, serving Italian dishes and drinks.

"Our parents later put in a couple of boccie ball alleys and four precast concrete tables, and the customers yelled their orders through a small window to my mother, who was in the kitchen," said a son, Nazzareno "Naz" F. Velleggia of Baltimore, who operates the restaurant with his brother, Frank M. Velleggia Sr. of Brooklandville.

"It was so successful that they kept buying adjacent pieces of property and expanded from a 30-seat restaurant to what is here today, which is Little Italy's oldest restaurant," Naz Velleggia said.

"She was the driving force behind the restaurant and used her own family recipes. Everything was made by hand -- from the pasta on up -- and she was very particular about what came in the door from the purveyors," he said.

"Dad couldn't cook a lick, and he knew better than to get around her in the kitchen; that was her domain. He was a good front man and liked meeting the customers, handling the business side and washing down the sidewalk with a hose," Frank Velleggia said.

Mrs. Velleggia was affectionately called "Miss Mary" by customers and neighbors.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Velleggia's became the "unofficial office" of the late Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. when he was Baltimore's mayor and, later, his son, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who also became mayor.

hTC "She was a very fine lady and was the glue that held the place together," recalled Mr. D'Alesandro, who said he had a weakness for her veal dishes.

Visiting celebrities also stopped at Velleggia's, including baseball great Joe DiMaggio and actor Danny DeVito. Actress Mae West always brought Mrs. Velleggia a corsage when she dined at the restaurant after appearing in a show at Ford's Theatre.

Mrs. Velleggia held sway over the kitchen until about three years ago, when she turned it over to her grandson, Rick Velleggia.

"Her advice to me was simple: 'Cook for the people like you're cooking for your family and everything will be fine,' " Rick Velleggia said.

Despite her advancing years, Mrs. Velleggia visited the restaurant daily, inspecting the kitchen, tasting the sauces, peeling shrimp, cleaning calamari and even sweeping floors.

Frank Velleggia Jr., a grandson who manages Casa di Pasta, the family pasta and sauce business, said he was always amazed by his grandmother's simple tastes.

"Her favorite meal was probably toasted Italian bread with grape jelly," he said with a chuckle.

The former Maria D'Angelo was born in Acquasanta, Italy, near the Adriatic Sea. She immigrated to Baltimore in 1920 with her father, a tailor, and a brother and three sisters. They settled near West Baltimore's Hollins Market.

She was a seamstress in the nearby Garment District sweatshops until she married in 1928. Her husband died in 1976.

Mrs. Velleggia was a communicant of St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church, at Stiles and Exeter streets in Little Italy, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 1 p.m. today.

She also is survived by three sisters, Irma Petrucci and Adalgisa DeAngelis, both of Hamilton, and Elena Pennente of Ventnor, N.J.; seven other grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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