Sabatino's to serve food like it's 1955

To celebrate 50 years in Little Italy, owners to roll back prices

February 26, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago this month, two Italian immigrants, Joseph Canzani and Sabatino Luperini, pooled their modest resources to open a small, family-style restaurant in a rowhouse in Little Italy.

Next week, Canzani's 60-year-old nephew, Vince Culotta, now co-owner of Sabatino's Italian restaurant, will preside over a golden anniversary celebration that captures the qualities that have long made the place a Baltimore landmark.

Culotta and Renato Rotondo, his chef and co-owner, won't just be offering every customer a souvenir replica of one of Sabatino's menus from the 1950s. On Monday and Tuesday, from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, they'll be serving everything but drinks for the same prices Canzani and Luperini charged in 1955. That means 50 cents for a bowl of minestrone ($5.50 today), $2 for spaghetti and meatballs ($12.25), or $3.75 for veal scaloppine ($19.25 now).

"We could've put up a plaque or something," says Culotta, known to two generations of diners as the place's genial chief greeter, "but Sabatino's has always been about customers. We wanted this anniversary to be a way to say thanks. So, `Welcome to 50 years ago.'"

Like a plate of Rotondo's rigatoni, the offer has the right flavor for a restaurant that, according to Culotta, has always specialized in "Italian food as Americans know it - I mean a lot of real dishes, good red sauces, spicy sauces, big portions, no pretenses."

In the years since Culotta's uncle and Luperini opened the place, Sabatino's has expanded four times to reach its current size - 14 separate dining rooms, 450 tables and 12,000 square feet of space in three connecting rowhouses. But it's been continuity that has fueled the place's growth as surely as a low flame brings marinara to a boil.

"If you look at that [1955] menu," says Culotta with a laugh, pointing to the red-and-green replica they'll be handing out next week, "90 percent of what's on there is available at Sabatino's today."

A taste of the past will be fitting for a restaurant operated largely by people descended from the founders - or who might as well have. When "Sabby" Luperini retired in 1968, Canzani brought in nephew Vince Culotta, along with neighborhood brothers Renato and Ricky Rotondo. The three, who had worked at the restaurant for years, became partners in 1974.

Today, two of Culotta's children - Phillip Culotta and Lisa Morekas - are managers, and a third, Toni Bacon, is taking time off to raise three boys. Renato Jr. has been a manager for eight years, and Patrick Calo, who grew up in the neighborhood, is a manager as well.

"Pat might as well be family," says the elder Culotta as he gestures toward Calo, setting up for lunch as customers drift in a half-hour before the place opens.

The family atmosphere has made Sabatino's an anchor on Little Italy's historic dining scene, says restaurant consultant Diane Feffer Neas, and its lack of pretense suits a city that tends to prefer substance to show.

"A lot of places have come and gone in that neighborhood," she says, "but people who come to Baltimore say, `Let's go to Sabatino's.' You don't make it 50 years without a fine reputation."

The place has been a watering-hole for celebrities and politicians for decades - John Unitas, Spiro T. Agnew, Rick Demspey, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Carter grin in photos on the walls - but if you dwelt on the famous and influential, you'd likely be missing the point. Culotta and Morekas seem more at home showing off black-and-white images of Little Italy from the 1940s - and hundreds of snapshots of customers and employees taken in the years since.

"We don't really ask the celebrities to pose," says Morekas. "We've had a bunch here, but we only do that if they become regulars and we know they're at home."

"Every customer is a star customer," Vince Culotta adds.

For employees, Sabatino's has been more than just a place to do business and get to know a vibrant clientele - "more wonderful people than I can count," says Culotta, who was born blocks away in 1944 and didn't move from the city until six years ago.

The restaurant offered a window to an evolving Baltimore and on trends in the business. In the early days, customers liked dining later than they do now, rarely complaining when Culotta had to seat them as late as 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m.

"Today, people seem to want to be home earlier than that," he says.

And about 1975, dining out became a more casual proposition. "You don't expect the jacket and tie today," he says. "Life's less formal. I enjoy that. Things change, and in my book, always for the better. You adapt."

So far, customers have adapted quite readily to the pending commemoration. When the Sabatino's crew sent out a mailer to regular customers recently, the 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. slots on both nights filled quickly. As of yesterday, the other hours were mostly open.

"This isn't an invitation-only thing," says Culotta. "We like everything here to be open to the public."

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