Albert C. Isella Sr., 94

Little Italy maitre d’ who devised the Bookmaker’s Salad at Sabatino’s Restaurant had many stories to tell

April 13, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Albert C. Isella Sr., a retired Little Italy maitre d' who invented the legendary Bookmaker's Salad named after his gambling friends, died of congestive heart failure Thursday at Franklin Square Hospital Center. The Rosedale resident was 94.

"He lived a life the way he wanted to," said his sister, Molly Casserly of Eastpoint. "He was basically a very kind man. If he had a buck in his pocket and someone asked him for it, he'd give it away."

Born in Girardville, Pa., he was the son of coal miner who headed a miners' union. Both father and son were injured in a mine cave-in. The elder Mr. Isella died, and his son left the coal mines to find work in Baltimore during the 1930s.

According to a 1994 column in The Baltimore Sun, he moved in with an aunt on Oldham Street in Highlandtown and found a job at Sparrows Point. He recalled that his wages were 14 1/2 cents an hour. He tried to organize a union and was beaten by Bethlehem Steel police for passing out leaflets.

He said that women were the backbone of the labor movement. They "had the guts before the men did," he said.

"The Depression bred all kinds of roll-the-dice business endeavors, including the flowering of the street wager. Al became one of its chief impresarios, and then parlayed the action," wrote former Sun columnist Michael Olesker, who spoke at Mr. Isella's funeral Monday. "For a quarter-century after the war, he ran Gussie's Downbeat, a hurricane of a nightclub located underneath a Highlandtown Chinese laundry and frequented by professional ballplayers, neighborhood guys and local bookmakers who would arrive and settle up the day's bets."

Friends said that Mr. Isella would often say, "Don't worry about a thing." They recalled him saying it to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio.

"And he said it to Spiro Agnew, over dinner the same day Agnew copped his famous plea and gave up being vice president of the United States," Mr. Olesker wrote in 1994.

A Democrat, he was active in East Baltimore neighborhood politics.

"He was the last of the genuine political muldoons," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "He was a character, a compassionate guy and a hard worker. He was the precinct executive in the 26th Ward."

During his many years involved in gambling, Mr. Isella estimated he was arrested more than 50 times.

Mr. Isella liked to tell the story that Baltimore County prosecutors once offered him a deal: Plead guilty to gambling, and they would recommend a $50 fine. He said he didn't like the offer. He was tired of being dragged into court.

"If you don't take it, you could spend Christmas in jail," he recalled being told.

"Big deal," he said he yelled in the direction of Judge Charles Foos, "So I'll be in jail. So I'll save money on some Christmas gifts."

The judge sentenced him to a $500 fine and a year's probation.

In 1970, Mr. Isella became the maitre d' at Sabatino's Italian Restaurant on Fawn Street in Little Italy. He held the job for more than two decades and became a friend of many of the guests at the popular dining spot.

"One day we noticed that a group of our regular patrons, bookmakers in their 70s, were not coming in as much as they once did," said Vince Culotta, a co-owner of the restaurant. "They said they were getting older and didn't want to eat so much food. So they were staying away."

The restaurant owner said Mr. Isella, who wanted their patronage, reacted quickly.

"He said. ‘What you want is light food. I'll fix it for you.' He then ran into the kitchen and took one of our regular house salads," Mr. Culotta said. "He added some salami and cheese and shrimp. He said, ‘Call it the bookmaker salad.' "

Now called the "Famous Bookmaker Salad," it is described on the menu as a "garden salad accented with shrimp, Genoa salami, provolone cheese and a hard-boiled egg, served with Sabatino's house dressing."

Mr. Culotta said the dish remains among the most popular items at the restaurant.

Mr. Isella worked until about 15 years ago but returned to the restaurant daily after he retired to greet old friends. He often sat on a bench near the restaurant's front door. He only occasionally ate his own salad. He favored fettuccine with veal or gnocchi.

A funeral Mass was celebrated Monday at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church. After the service, a lunch was served at Sabatino's. The first course was the "Famous Bookmaker Salad."

In addition to his sister, survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Virginia J. Pilkenton; three brothers, Carmen Isella of Baltimore, John Baldassar of Mahanoy City, Pa., and Alfred Baldassari of Wilmington, Del.; and three grandchildren. His son, Albert C. Isella Jr., died in 1978. His daughter, Cynthia Alizadeh, died in 2007.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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