It's still all in the family at the Venice Tavern

ON NIGHTLIFE

February 01, 2007|By SAM SESSA

The Venice Tavern was built on family.

Several generations and more than 70 years after it opened, the Highlandtown basement bar still thrives.

Italian immigrants Frank and Mary Victoria DeSantis Sr. opened the small bar in 1933. They named it after the Italian city, which Mary particularly liked. The couple's sixth and final child, Frank, was born on the second floor of the building that year.

The couple ran the tavern for almost three decades, serving beer, liquor and some food. They built a close-knit clientele of neighborhood residents, who eventually started calling Mary DeSantis "Mom."

Frank DeSantis Sr. passed away in '62, and his wife died five years later. The business fell to their children, who kept it going.

"That's what everybody did back then," said son Frank DeSantis. "In Highlandtown, the fruit didn't fall far from the tree."

Frank DeSantis and his older brother Vince took over the tavern about 15 years after their mother passed away and did some remodeling. The place looks as if it has barely changed.

Walk down the stairs from street level, open the door, and the bar is dead ahead. A row of video poker machines sit to the right, and a jukebox and pool table are to the left.

Last week, Budweiser and Coors Light were on tap. Cans of both cost $1.25, and came with 8-ounce glasses. Small pitchers of draft beer are $2.75, and large ones are $4.75. A game of pool is a mere 50 cents. Now that's good living.

Some of the patrons are rowdy and love to laugh or holler across the bar. Others are more subdued and prefer to drink in silence. Most of them are in their 30s, 40s and 50s and live in the area. Charles Bukowski would have loved this place.

The jukebox has a mix of Frank Sinatra, '80s rock, country and soul. There are two main speakers, one on each side of the bar. Just be careful when you pick a song -- the wrong tune could turn the bar against you.

Some of the walls are covered in posters of boxers from long past. Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis are among them. One sign, which looks as if it's from the '40s or '50s, proclaims "Loud Profanity Will Not Be Tolerated." Which raises the question -- is quiet profanity OK? Since no one obeys the sign anyway, the point is moot.

There's also a portrait of Vince DeSantis -- an accomplished local boxer himself -- on one of the walls. He was a lightweight champion of Highlandtown when boxing was far more popular than it is today, Frank DeSantis said. He holds a record in the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame.

"In his day, he was good," Frank DeSantis said. "He was very good."

When Vince and Frank DeSantis ran the tavern together, they had live country bands perform where the pool table is. It only lasted a few years, because they couldn't fit enough people to make it worthwhile, he said. The place is so small that if 75 or 100 people crammed in, there wouldn't be a square inch left to stand on.

That just adds to its intimacy, which, in turn, helps cultivate a sense of family among the regulars.

"People come in there and say, `My mother and father used to bring me here when I was a little girl,'" Frank DeSantis said.

Frank DeSantis retired from the daily operations last March and handed the business to his grandson, Dominic. Frank is 73 now, and the bar left him little time for anything else, he said. "My whole life I put into that place," he said.

Frank DeSantis' son, Richard, owns DeSantis' Pizza Grill and Bar in Perry Hall, and his other grandson, Damion, runs Dego Dames in Little Italy.

"We're a long line of bar owners," he said. "I guess it's in the blood."

The Venice Tavern is at 339 S. Conkling St. Hours are 8 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. For more information, call 410-732-3045.

Reagan's Birthday Bash

Tuesday, Ropewalk Tavern is throwing its annual Ronald Reagan birthday bash. If you're in the area, definitely check it out -- there will be a free buffet, drink specials, a cake with a portrait of Reagan's face on top and some jellybeans (a favorite snack of the former prez). Last year, the place was packed. The bar is at 1209 S. Charles St. Call 410-727-1298 or go to ropewalktavern.com.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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