Night after night, touring the country for his one-man show, Chazz Palminteri searched for the perfect Italian meal, but 31 plates of linguine marinara gave way to 31 disappointments. Then, he walked into Aldo's, a mainstay of Baltimore's Little Italy, and found not only the pasta he'd been craving but the collaborators for his dream project.
Two years later, and the Academy Award nominee is about to add a restaurant to a resume that includes "The Usual Suspects," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "A Bronx Tale," the 1989 one-man show that brought him fame, not to mention a lifelong friend and mentor in Robert De Niro.
Chazz: A Bronx Original — "a garlicky valentine to the Italian-American table" — will open later this spring in Harbor East, a neighborhood already outfitted with notable restaurants. Together with the owners of Aldo's, the Little Italy restaurant where he met the fateful linguine, Palminteri is positioning Chazz: A Bronx Original to join the ranks of notable Harbor East restaurants and maybe upstage them.
Baltimore isn't overflowing with celebrity restaurants — unless the celebrity is a football hero. But Palminteri intends to lend more than his name to Chazz: A Bronx Original. In a restaurant anchored by a mammoth coal-fired pizza oven, Palminteri and his partners are trying to recreate in Harbor East the Italian-American restaurants of his beloved Bronx. If all goes according to plan, the restaurant will become a destination not only for Italian fanatics, but for a few of Palminteri's famous actor friends too.
The 58-year-old actor sets the scene at Chazz: "Diners will be sitting in Chazz's dining room. Boom! One of my movies will come on. They'll be dining at Chazz, and then they'll see me on the screen. And then they'll look around, and Chazz Palminteri will be right there."
Palminteri has been intimately involved in the restaurant's planning, traveling down to Baltimore from New York, where he lives with his wife, Gianna, and children, Dante and Gabriella, for weekly planning meetings at the restaurant site, and conducting an exhaustive pizza discovery tour of the New York area, with actors Stephen and Billy Baldwin. "I'm a full partner," said Palminteri, who plans to regularly mingle with diners once the place is open.
Palminteri had come close before to starring in his own restaurant, but none of his prospective partners ever made the cut. "Sometime they had the experience but not the vision, or they had the vision but not the money, Palminteri remembers. "Then I found some people with the vision and the money and experience. I went to eat at their restaurant and their food sucked. It broke my heart."
Palminteri's visit to Aldo's Ristorante Italiano was in 2009, when the actor was in Baltimore for the national tour of "A Bronx Tale."
Sergio Vitale, the son of the restaurant's founder and chef Aldo Vitale, remembers the April night when Chazz Palminteri first came into Aldo's. "I noticed that he ordered off the menu, linguine with marinara," Vitale recalls. "Anyone who orders that is really trying to test the kitchen."
"It's true," Palminteri admits. "If a kitchen can make a good authentic sauce and cook the pasta correctly, we're in business."
Palminteri came back to Aldo's the next 10 nights in a row.
An exact opening date for the restaurant is uncertain, but construction for the 7,000-square-foot, 160-seat restaurant is under way in the Eden Building. Chazz: A Bronx Original is the place's working name; it might change, and there have been earlier working titles.
One of the early contenders for the restaurant's name was Sonny's Place, after Palminteri's character in the movie "A Bronx Tale." That name didn't stick around long. Sergio Vitale remembers Palminteri telling him, "Yeah, Bob didn't like it." "I thought, Bob? Who's Bob?" And then it hit me, Robert De Niro." Palminteri admits that he's been vetting some of the details for his first restaurant with De Niro, his friend and mentor and a wildly successful restaurateur in his own right.
The centerpiece of the Chazz is coal-fired pizza oven, strategically placed at the restaurant's entrance, custom-made to the Vitales' orders and shipped to the Baltimore from Australia. Sixteen seats at the "pizza altar" will create an "immersive experience" for customers, Vitale explained, who met in Palminteri a fellow perfectionist, willing to do anything for the perfect pizza.
The designers behind Chazz: A Bronx Original are hoping to evoke Palminteri's Bronx in particular and New York City in general. "But nothing schmaltzy," as Vitale puts it. Glass block at the entrance will suggest the Art Deco touches that endured in neighborhood bars like the one Palminteri's character owns in "A Bronx Tale." Cobblestone pillars and a steel-ivy trellis will frame a platform dining area, a suggestion of old Bronx elevated train platforms.
But why the Bronx at all? "What Americans think of as Italian-American life is the Italian-American world of the Bronx," explains Vitale. "And we're hoping to capture here but the classic age of New York Italian-American life, when food was real, and when every meal was an occasion for laughter. Mostly, we think dining should be fun." Palminteri talks about his plans to show clips from classic Italian films in the restaurant's private dining room.
Vitale admitted that there was a limit, though, to just how much of the Bronx he and his partners were expecting Baltimoreans to accept. Yankee Stadium has been carefully edited out of a proposed mural that will be painted in the restaurant's main dining room. "We're not idiots," Sergio Vitale said.