Angelina's retired, but her name still cooks

March 12, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE springtime of her 84th year, Angelina Tadunni relaxes a little. She deserves it. She was a restaurateur, and the restaurant remains her namesake. That's her name out there in the 7100 block of Harford Road, atop Angelina's, the Italian restaurant with the Irish pub and the crab cakes to die for.

It's 48 years now since she and her husband, Joe, and her sister and brother- in-law, Sarah and Sam Conigliaro, opened the place.

It was St. Valentine's Day in 1952, when Baltimore was a different world: no major league sports teams yet on the horizon, no Inner Harbor tourists thrilled to find the 27th identical knockoff of a Hard Rock Cafe, no massive air-conditioned shopping malls dominating the suburban landscape, because all the great department stores were still clustered on a Howard Street where no one yet imagined the ghostly avenue that would evolve there.

But in some ways, the fundamental things apply. The homely crab is still the emotional heart of Baltimore cuisine; and, as the aficionados have pointed out for years, there's no crab cake quite like an Angelina's crab cake.

Only, as we entered the year 2000, it was no longer Angelina Tadunni who was making those crab cakes.

"Oh, but they're still as good as ever," she was saying last week. "Make sure you put that in the newspaper."

That they are. And Angelina, who retired a few months back, still lives just a few doors up the street in case anybody needs a postdoctoral tutorial in the art of crab cake construction.

"Oh, the secret, the secret," Angelina said. She's diminutive and white-haired and energetic. "Everybody wants to know the secret of the perfect crab cake. Well, I'll tell you, but..."

But there's a state of mind that surrounds it, which tells us a lot -- not just about the crab cake, but about the times in which we live, and the mad rush that takes us away from the things that are important.

After the war, Angelina and Joe opened a little place downtown, on Calvert Street opposite the old Railway Express office. Sarah and Sam Conigliaro had their own business going, a little grocery store far out on Harford Road, out where the suburban trickle was just beginning to resemble the tide going out.

"I said, `Why don't we go in with Sarah and Sam?' " Angelina remembers. "We had a little girl, and I figured I could give her more attention if we were all in partners. The people at Railway Express all said to us, `Don't leave, you're gonna be sorry out there.' "

They were right, but nobody yet understood why. The grocery store was going pretty well until the food chains started flexing their muscles. Food Fair moved nearby. The grocery store crowd dwindled and disappeared.

"The only people we were getting was credit," Angelina said. "The chain stores wouldn't give it, but we would. But it put us up to our necks in debt. So we figured, we gotta do something. We tore everything out, and we made a restaurant."

Also, they made lives that they wrapped around that restaurant. They were open seven days a week until 2 in the morning; Fridays and Saturdays, until 4 or 5 in the morning.

"We had to, if we wanted to get out of debt," Angelina said. "But we were young then, and we all got along, and we hired help that became our family. If one person worked extra hard, everybody else pitched in, too."

And they understood something else: A restaurant is more than food. Those who enter want to feel as if they belong. The Tadunnis and the Conigliaros treated customers like friends, and food like delicacies.

"You don't find so many places like that today," Angelina says. "Years ago, the pace was different. People took the time to do things right, and they seemed to help one another. I miss it, because you meet a lot of people.

"Even in the kitchen. Oh, yeah, people would come back in the kitchen all the time and talk to me. They'd say, `We were in Italy, and the food was so good, but we all said, `Yeah, but it's not as good as Angelina's.' "

In the late 1960s, Sam Tadunni died of a cerebral hemorrhage, at 56, as he dressed to go to work. In 1968, the Reilly family bought the restaurant and opened an Irish pub downstairs. But Angelina stayed around, and Carole Reilly added her own touch to the famous crab cake, and the dish won awards all over the place. Thirteen years ago, the Bufano family bought the restaurant -- but Angelina stayed on.

Even tourists who think the Hard Rock Cafe's a swell place have heard about Angelina's, and make the drive out Harford Road. They've heard about the famous crab cake, and the Italian food, and the Irish pub where the place rollicks every St. Patrick's Day.

"The secret to the crab cake?" Angelina says. "It's the same as everything. Top-quality food, top-quality ingredients, and you make everything from scratch. There's no assembly line. If you have top-quality crab meat, you have quality crab cakes. People can tell the difference. When you go to a quick place, you get quick food. When you go to a place with quality, and people who care, that's when you make something that lasts."

Like Angelina's.

Joe's gone now, and Sarah and Sam. But their standards live on. Angelina spent her last sweltering summer in the kitchen last year, and then her daughter, Mary Francis, persuaded her to retire. At 84, she's entitled. And she checks in regularly, just to make sure everything's OK. After all, it's her name over the door.

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