Serving Up Tradition

Marconi's never changed, but dining habits did. Is there still room on Baltimore's plate for Lobster Cardinal and Oysters Pauline?

July 05, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Marconi's restaurant already looks a little forlorn: the white marble steps need scrubbing, the impatiens in the flower boxes need watering and the chic black and white awnings need dusting.

Until two weeks ago Marconi's restaurant remained a bastion of fading gentility on a downtown street that sometimes forgets its manners.

Ali Morsy, the last manager and a waiter for more than 22 years, last week stood on the well-worn steps at the entrance to the restaurant on Saratoga Street and lamented the ending of its 85-year run. He closed the doors June 18.

FOR THE RECORD - In a July 5 article about the closing of Marconi's restaurant in downtown Baltimore, Walter Ciszek was omitted from a list of chefs. He worked at the restaurant for about 25 years until his retirement in 1975.
The Sun regrets the errors.

He and Keith Watson, the chef, had kept the landmark restaurant going with a combination of hard work, perseverance and love after Peter G. Angelos, the lawyer and the owner of the Orioles, bought it five years ago.

"This location is not doing any good for him anymore," Morsy, 51, says. He's grateful that Angelos supported the restaurant as long as he did. "This location is not even breaking even."

Almost on cue, a panhandler stops to ask Morsy for 60 cents for bus fare to nowhere in particular.

Marconi's popularity sagged as many of the old money Baltimore families who once lined up all the way down to St. Alphonsus Church, a block away, retreated to suburban restaurants rather than confront such unpleasantries in downtown Baltimore.

Nor could restaurant owners or managers find a balance between satisfying older customers who loved the menu as it was and attracting younger diners who found the place a little stuffy and the cream sauces a little heavy.

Angelos says he will announce plans for Marconi's in a month or two. No one thinks it will reopen on Saratoga Street. Both Morsy and Watson would love to work at a new Marconi's. Until that happens, Watson plans to relax a while, but Morsy is already looking for work. They both received two weeks' vacation pay, but no severance.

Angelos acquired the restaurant after the death of owner Ilene Booke. Her father, the late Louis Booke, who owned a jewelry and silver shop across the street, bought the restaurant because he liked to eat lunch there.

"The street has been treated harshly by the passing years," says 82-year-old Gilbert Sandler, a longtime chronicler of Baltimore, its characters and its foibles.

Sandler recalls a finer, brighter Saratoga Street, dominated by the Rennert Hotel, at Liberty Street. The Rennert, once among the city's finest hotels before its demise in 1939, was a majestic Victorian pile with a bar where Henry L. Mencken ate Chincoteague oysters for 35 cents a half dozen, and where he raised a glass of beer in April 1933 to mark the end of Prohibition. Mencken, as renowned a gourmet as he was a journalist and critic, would also eat regularly and copiously across the street at `the Marconi," as he called it.

Marconi's striped awnings echo those that shaded the Rennert's guests for nearly 70 years. Probably the oldest restaurant in the city, Marconi's opened in 1920 as one of the first attempts at presenting a mostly French-Italian Continental cuisine to Baltimoreans.

Favorite dishes

But its reputation rested to a great extent on Chesapeake Bay seafood, notably soft shell crabs, broiled rockfish and shad and shad roe in season, although sweetbreads Bordelais was always a favorite. Sweetbreads in five versions were perennially best sellers at Marconi's. It will be hard to find sweetbreads in any form at a Baltimore restaurant now that Marconi's has closed.

Change came very slowly to the Marconi. At its closing, three crystal chandeliers lit the gleaming silverware and white napery in the elegant front room, just as they had for generations. The Lobster Cardinal went on the menu in 1921, ostensibly in memory of Cardinal James Gibbons, who died that year. Mencken ate the broiled lamb chops with Sara Powell Haardt, the woman he married in 1930.

"Some people ate there once a week for 30 years," Sandler says. "I didn't do that. I did go to the place often. It was comfortable because it was a sort of a constant. You knew when you went in nothing about it would be changed. It was 1928 all over again.

"It was considered a kind of elegant place to have lunch and dinner before the theater," Sandler says. "I think anybody who thought of himself as a Baltimorean and who had respect for that kind of a setting, which is traditional, went there and liked it.

"If you looked around in there," he says, "you'd see a lot of people who had been around here a long time ago and you thought had died."

Charles and Judi Winner went to Marconi's on their first date in 1965. He's a lawyer and she's an artist. They're married 39 years now and they returned again and again on their anniversary and Valentine's Day.

"It was our favorite romantic place to go," she says. "It was just very familiar and we had our favorite waiter."

That was Ali Morsy.

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