411 on Baltimore's Little Italy
February 26, 2016 6:22 PM   Subscribe

At a conference in March, I'll be organizing a group of public history colleagues for a dinner conversation. I'd really like skip the hotel restaurants and chains take them to Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood, but I don't know much about the area. Can you recommend a good place where 15 people could have dinner, ideally in a private room or somewhere easy to hear? And what other sites/stops/points of interest would some geeky historians like to know about? Thanks!
posted by Miko to Travel & Transportation around Baltimore, MD (8 answers total)
I will be at that conference! I rarely dine downtown though, so am of little help beyond moral support. Not technically Little Italy, but Cinghiale or Pazo are same area and have great reputations. The only actual Little Italy restaurant I've eaten in is Sabatino's, and they are absolutely set up for large groups. My cousin raves about a sushi place called Sticky Rice, where evidently the best tater tots are to be found - little closer to Fells Point than Little Italy, so maybe would need to take the Circulator ("Charm City Circulator" a free bus that runs the inner city routes - stops at midnight Fri & Sat, 8pm weekdays).

As to the sites of interest - do you mean to see on the way to dinner? Frankly, the history of the Inner Harbor itself is fascinating, especially given the conference theme. But if you've got WWII geeks in your group and can travel about 15 minutes out of town, I can totally hook you up...MeMail me!
posted by AliceBlue at 7:13 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Im guessing you'll be in Harbor East? Lebanese Taverna worked well for my group.

As far as history, that area is where the Union soldiers disembarked to switch trains, not knowing they were about to be waylaid by Confederate sympathizers. A block of row homes built by Frederick Douglass -occupied to this day-are around the corner. you're not far from Patterson Park where the Battle of Baltimore happened. And the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is fantastic.
posted by postel's law at 7:20 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, my favorite restaurant in little italy is not italian (ozra, could possibly work for groups that size) and my favorite italian restaurants are not in little italy (e.g. sotto sopra). Vaccaro's is ok though. Some people like Germano's and I've been to a fun cabaret there, but the food was....uninspired (this is sort of the theme for most restaurants in that neighborhood).

The above suggestions in this thread are good, though Pazo is likely way too loud for your purposes. Another nearby one that could be worth a shot if it's in the right price range is fleet street kitchen, and possibly waterfront kitchen (though they are a little less consistent). Also, you should check out the whiskey bar Birds of a Feather a bit east in fells point if scotch is a thing for your group.

Some historic stuff, most of it a bit further afield: shot tower, B&O railroad museum, Jewish Museum of Maryland, washington monument and surrounding neighborhood (Mt Vernon), Fort McHenry. There's also some fairly dodgy but fascinating historic bits of baltimore scattered around, for example Lexington Market and the nearby light rail corridor which once was a rich business district and now is...not (a safe target in this area would be alewife), or the old town mall (it's seriously interesting but don't go here unless you are in a car in daylight, definitely not on foot).
posted by advil at 7:55 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Please get some crab cakes from Faidley's at Lexington Market for me! Berger's cookies (also in the market) are my absolute favorite cookie- shortbread with a thick layer of chocolate on top.

The market is also right by the gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe at Westminster Hall on the University of Maryland Baltimore campus.

Also on campus is the University of Maryland Medical School which has an interesting history. It used to be illegal to dissect cadavers so doctors had to do it in secret. You can take a tour of Davidge Hall but you might need to coordinate with the UMB office of external affairs. The National Museum of Dentistry is also on campus.

There's not much to Little Italy but I agree that Sabatino's would be good for a group. Maybe get drinks before or afterward at Pazo? It's a bit hip and is definitely loud. Or go to Vaccaro's for cannoli and coffee for dessert.
posted by betsybetsy at 6:19 AM on February 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I live in Baltimore, and I'll tell you what locals know: We don't go to Little Italy for good Italian food. Little Italy restaurants are mostly for tourists who don't care what they eat. What is good to see/do/eat in Little Italy and nearby:

Bocce ball tournaments on the city-owned court are always fun to watch.

Dessert at Vaccaro's is ok. It's more of a spectacle than great Italian desserts. A large group has almost no chance of being seated together after dinner on a Friday or Saturday. To get a better taste of Vaccaro's, go during the morning and pick up canoli shells and cream to go and pass them out to friends later that day at another event.

Breakfast, coffee/capuccino/tiramisu/pastries at the charming Piedigrotta Bakery. My Italian friends swear by this and turned me on to their incredible tiramisu.

Friday night cabarets at Germano's. Performers vary. Intimate space upstairs, very cozy, can do groups but not sure how many. Reservations required. Food is meh. Go for the performance, not for the food.

Cinghiale is EXCELLENT Italian food with an extensive and wonderful wine menu facing the water in Harbor East, right next to Little Italy. Reservations required. There is a pronounced din, so be prepared to hear only the people seated right next to you.

Lebanese Taverna is more casual and slightly easier to hear people dining with you in a group, right next to Cinghiale.

Pazo is a scenester place, a meet market, but also with excellent food (same chef/owners as Cinghiale). Great for happy hour for groups of 15-20ish, with big lounge seating areas and waitstaff service of tapas and excellent cocktails.

Charleston (across from Cinghiale and owned by the same chef as Pazo and Cinghiale) is more formal dining with a southern cuisine. Definitely can take large groups. Reservations required. World-class food and service by James Beard winner chef Cindy Wolf. Not cheap.

Geeky historian sites of interest: Baltimore Shot Tower is walkable, Reginald F. Lewis museum of African-American history is walkable, touring the USS Torsk (WWII submarine) is walkable, touring the USS Constellation (19th c warship) is walkable, or take the water taxi across the harbor (15-minute ride) to Fort McHenry.

The historic cobblestoned port neighborhood of Fells Point is walkable from Little Italy and Harbor East, and has a ton of bars, shopping, and restaurants. On weekend nights it's got a bit of a Bourbon Street atmosphere, but at other times it shows as a residential neighborhood with tiny streets and 250 year-old houses as narrow as 9 feet across. There's an old pier on the waterfront that was used as the filming location for David Simon's Homicide. There's also a boarding site for the water taxi here (takes you to Fort McHenry & the inner harbor).
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 6:19 AM on February 27, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks so much, y'all. This is incredibly helpful.

We don't go to Little Italy for good Italian food. Little Italy restaurants are mostly for tourists who don't care what they eat.

This is sorta true of the Little Italys in Boston or NY, as well. What I'm looking for by going there is sort of a sense of a food culture that's linked to an ethnic identity and neighborhood, as well as the kind of place where we could get our own room and hear ourselves, because we're supposed to be conversing over dinner. But I'm also intrigued by some of the alternative options and local knowledge you've offered, so thanks very much for all of this information. I will explore some links today! Feel free to add more after this comment, but I wanted to say thanks to you all for being generous with your knowledge.
posted by Miko at 8:35 AM on February 27, 2016

Response by poster: Ended up with a reservation at Waterfront Kitchen. After reading about it, it just seemed spot on since we're going to discuss food issues and civic responsibility, and they have some cool nonprofit partnerships. I did read about them on Yelp, etc., and consistency does seem an issue, but I think my group will be forgiving if anything like that comes up, and they nicely offered to have the chef or manager talk to us about what they're doing.

Thanks very much everyone.
posted by Miko at 10:07 PM on February 27, 2016

If you're interested in food issues, civic responsibility, and history, you might check out two uniquely Baltimore food institutions: the indoor markets (Lexington Market was mentioned upthread, Broadway Market, est. 1786, isn't far); and the arabbers, who may not be around much longer.
posted by postel's law at 1:33 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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