Restaurant vs. neighbors in Baltimore's Little Italy

Group complains of noise, crowds, asks Liquor Board to revoke license

April 12, 2010|By Laura Vozzella | laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

Just three months after Milan opened its doors, billing itself as a restaurant-lounge "where food meets fashion," it seems a few more introductions are in order:

Milan, meet Little Italy.

And Little Italy, meet what could be the future.

The old city neighborhood that's been known to split bitterly over bocce court lighting has turned its feisty spirit on the sleek newcomer.

Complaining that Milan is more nightclub than restaurant, attracting noisy crowds and employing outside promoters, a group of neighbors has petitioned the city not to renew Milan's liquor license. The Liquor Board will consider the matter at a hearing April 29.

Milan's owner said he has been surprised by objections from the neighborhood, however famously cantankerous. But it is those complaining about Milan, he suggested, who need to get a better sense of Little Italy.

A neighborhood of Formstone rowhouses, Little Italy has a past humble enough for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to play up in her political biography the way Bill Clinton highlighted Hope, Ark. But today Little Italy sits next door to Harbor East, a posh enclave whose exclusive high-rises and boutiques seemingly sprang up overnight. Physically and conceptually, Milan represents the intersection of these two very different neighborhoods. Milan owner Curlee Smittie Jr. said Little Italy should welcome their coming together.

"Baltimore is becoming more of a metropolitan city, but we don't have metropolitan venues for entertainment," he said, noting the luxury housing on, or planned for, the harbor. "The Ritz or Four Seasons or Spinnaker Bay - these guys need more than a checkered tablecloth and a bowl of spaghetti."

"People who live in Harbor East don't come to Little Italy unless they come to Milan," Smittie added. "But now they say, 'Let's go try Caesar's Den.' Little Italy is getting a lot of hype from our venue."

The "hype" is going down about as well as cold spaghetti.

"That's insulting to the community to say we can't handle something new and hip," said Tony DeFranco, 30, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose parents still live there, above their restaurant, Caesar's Den. "Little Italy is not the neighborhood it was 10, 15 years ago with the little old ladies and the little old men sitting on the front step arguing over bocce ball. Sure, it still retains some of that old-world feel, but there are a lot of young people down there. Young families."

And they "get" Milan, DeFranco said. They just don't want it, he said, if it is promoted as a club.

"Little Italy had the wool pulled over their eyes," DeFranco said. "The way they pitched it, it was going to be no different than any other restaurant in Little Italy. Basically pasta, family-style. ... The neighborhood kind of looked at [the club-style promotions] as kind of a betrayal."

In their protest to the Liquor Board, residents complained about loud music, noisy and loitering patrons, overflowing trash containers, traffic and the use of promoters. Smittie said the club has hired off-duty police officers to direct traffic, added private trash removal, rearranged valet parking and had an acoustical engineer analyze noise from across the street. (The readings were "well within the Baltimore City noise ordinance code," said Peter Mooradian, Milan's general manager.)

But Smittie acknowledged using promoters, something the club explicitly agreed not to do when the liquor board approved its license in July, board records show.

Jet Set Mafia, a local event promoter, has been advertising the club and working the door. There is nothing illegal about using promoters, but the board has yanked liquor licenses from clubs that broke promises not to use them, most recently in September with the Canton dance club Phantom.

"We originally were not planning to work with partners, but after the first few weeks of opening, we realized that in order to attract an audience that would respect, value and appreciate the Milan experience and would also be respectful of the Little Italy community, it would be best," Smittie said via e-mail.

"Our intent was not to go against the wishes of the Little Italy community, but to make sure we are maintaining an audience that has the same adoration for fine dining and this community that we do."

Critics say the promoters hype Milan as a place to party, drawing crowds that stay later, drink harder and make more noise than traditional Little Italy diners.

. "The only reason you need a promoter is to sort of market a party," DeFranco said.

Twenty-seven people signed the petition to the liquor board. (It only takes 10 to trigger a hearing.) The signers were surprisingly reticent. Of those reached by The Baltimore Sun, only one agreed to comment.

Michael DiCicco, who was writing letters to the liquor board about Milan before it even opened, would say only this much: "Whatever happens in the Liquor Board, we'll find out."

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