Felicita al fresco

Scenes from Little Italy's film festival

Cover Story

July 16, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

It's a mild Friday evening in Baltimore. The air is as clear and gleaming as a dry white wine, and as the sun settles into the reddish shadows of twilight, two men on a Little Italy street corner jabber in Italian-accented English.

" 'La Vita e Bella!' " cries the first, his hands moving madly. " 'Life is Beautiful.' You know it, no? With Roberto Benigni? So funny, so moving. You must see this film!"

The second, an older gent in chef's attire, hasn't had the pleasure yet, but he nods thoughtfully. He will.

"We are paesani," explains the first man, holding up intertwined fingers. "Do you know the word paesani? This man grew up with my father in Sicily. We are lifelong friends. Like family."

Just up the street, another film is about to unreel on an outdoor screen, the latest chapter in a new summer tradition: the Little Italy Open-Air Film Festival. Tonight, the fest will feature not Benigni but Cher, in "Moonstruck," and throngs of strangers will overflow the intimate, close-knit neighborhood's restaurants and streets. But Nick Vaccaro's sentiments on friendship and family still seem apt.

Here, on Friday evenings in a makeshift piazza at the corner of High and Stiles streets, you don't have to be Sicilian, even Italian, to feel part of the family. Hundreds, at times thousands, converge to spread picnic blankets, lean back in lawn chairs and watch movies al fresco -- film fans turning friends as surely as twilight turns to a canopy of stars.

The Mayor of Little Italy

Roland Keh is everywhere tonight. The owner of Amicci's restaurant and a member of the Little Italy Restaurant Association, which co-sponsors the film series with the Senator Theater, Keh likes to mingle with the spectators as they gather. He knows the people themselves are as interesting as the Italian-themed films, and like a garrulous cousin, he seems to want you to meet each one.

"Talked to Mr. John yet?" he says. "Incredible man. We call him the Mayor of Little Italy. We wouldn't have a series without him."

John Pente is over there on his bench, the one right against the rowhouse he's lived in for all his 90 years. Before he even hears your name, he's on his feet, smiling and pumping your hand, and soon you're on a guided tour of the three-story home that houses the projector from which the films are shown.

"Just follow the old man," he hollers.

As he takes you up two flights of stairs, you hear of family and food. John's granddad came to Little Italy in 1898; more than a century later, the so-called Mayor has never left. He cooks a family dinner every other Sunday, feeding up to 16 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His 86-year-old sister lives next door and often cooks for him, handing his dinner through a rear window. "Best food in the world comes right through there," he says.

He shows you bedrooms, a den, the landing with the picture of him and Gov. Parris Glendening shaking hands. At length you reach the main attraction, the top-floor bedroom turned projection booth. In a room done up in goldenrod hues, the contraption the Senator lends to the series nearly scrapes the seven-foot ceiling.

Pente points out his window, across Stiles, across the parking lot where most of the crowd will sit, to the great white billboard turned movie screen on the side of Ciao Bella restaurant. It's only 5:45, but the street is closed, the folding chairs are going up and folks from all over Baltimore have started to gather.

"Wait till the band starts playing," Pente says with a dreamy smile. "It brings the whole neighborhood to life."

The driving power

You're told to meet Mary Ann Cricchio, the blond-haired dynamo behind the festival, and there she is in the street, shaking hands and chatting -- half in Italian, half in English -- with guests and passers-by.

"Jim Palmer just called!" she says, speaking of the ex-Orioles pitching star. "He said, 'What's the film tonight?' I said, 'Moonstruck.' He said, 'La luna, Mary Ann! La bella luna! I'll be there!"

Cricchio, co-owner of DaMimmo restaurant and president of the restaurant association, says Palmer saved their business. He came in one lonely, rainy night shortly after they opened several years ago and loved the food and the atmosphere so much he started telling his friends. DaMimmo has since become one of the most popular spots in Little Italy. It's their parking lot that serves as improvised piazza each Friday night.

Originally, says Cricchio, the screen on Ciao Bella was meant to be a billboard celebrating the neighborhood's restaurants. But the idea drew fire, so the restaurant association had to dream up another use. Guido de Franco, owner of Caesar's Den across the street, pitched the movie-screen idea as a joke. But Cricchio had visited Sicily the year before and seen the kind of open-air cinemas celebrated in the film "Cinema Paradiso." She took her brainstorm to Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator, and the plan developed from there.

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