Mary DeNittis, 98, restaurateur in city's Little Italy

April 24, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Mary DeNittis, a retired Little Italy restaurateur who helped introduce pizza to Baltimore, died of heart failure Monday at Genesis Cromwell Eldercare Center. She was 98.

Born Mary Scelsi in Isnello, Sicily, she moved to Baltimore with her family in 1908. They settled in the Little Italy neighborhood, where Mrs. DeNittis was to remain throughout her life. In a 1994 Evening Sun article, she recalled her parents' wood-burning oven at their President Street bakery, which supplied bread to the neighborhood.

She attended St. Leo Parochial School and was a 1922 graduate of the Institute of Notre Dame.

In 1926, she married Joseph DeNittis. He quit his $27-a-week job at a commercial bakery to open his Exeter Street bakery in 1929.

"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 cheesecakes, the eclairs, the creampuffs, the cookies, the buns. I didn't know my husband had a talent like that," Mrs. DeNittis recalled in 1994.

Among his breads and sweets was pizza, a dish whose acclaim had yet to be established on a large scale. His pizza was baked in his in-laws' wood-burning oven. A 1975 article in The Sun gave the DeNittises' pizza highest honors in a 16-pie taste-testing.

"She was an integral part of Little Italy, a top-of-the-line person," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "She was among the first generation of entrepreneurs and a leader in the community and in her church."

"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," Mrs. DeNittis said.

As popular as pizza was that first summer, the bakery and pizza business folded in 1932 because of the Depression, and Mrs. DeNittis worked as a seamstress. They opened another bakery, with pizza, four years later.

"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 neighborhood. The restaurants here were getting popular," Mrs. DeNittis recalled.

"She was an institution in Little Italy. She knew who married whom. She knew relationships backward and forward," said her cousin, attorney Samuel A. Culotta. "She was a beautiful, charming lady, generous and compassionate. She managed the whole business and was a gracious hostess."

After the war, the DeNittises dropped out of the pizza-making business temporarily. Then, on Jan. 20, 1950, they opened a full-line DeNittis Restaurant & Pizzeria on Eastern Avenue.

"She had a good head for figures. She checked and double-checked and anybody who worked there knew it," said her daughter-in-law, Margaret "Peggy" DeNittis. "She was the business brains of the restaurant."

Soon, the restaurant was attracting a larger clientele and was a favorite spot after 2 a.m., when the bars closed.

By 1958, Mrs. DeNittis and her husband, joined by son Blaise J. DeNittis, enlarged and moved the business to 906 Trinity St. The family continued to run the restaurant after the death of the elder Mr. DeNittis in 1979, until it closed about a decade ago.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church, Stiles and Exeter streets, where she was a longtime member.

Mrs. DeNittis is survived by her son and a sister, Connie Wojciechowski, both of Baltimore, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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