The banner, written in a luxuriously curly cursive style, reads “Little Italy.” Beneath the banner are Baltimore’s most famous Italian restaurants: Dalesio’s, Amicci’s, Sabatino’s, Chiapparelli’s.
But go beyond High Street, away from the tourists, and discover the real Little Italy.
Down the street from St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church on South Exeter is a small, modestly decorated corner bar: Osteria Da Amedeo.
According to the bar’s website, osteria is Italian for a family-owned place where people can have dinner and a glass of wine at a reasonable price.
Amedeo Ebrahimpour has been in the food business on and off for about 30 years, as long as he has lived in Baltimore. Ebrahimpour also owns an import shop right down the street from Amedeo’s, but the wine bar is currently his main focus. Though Iranian by blood, he went to college in Italy and speaks fluent Italian. He also speaks Spanish, Farsi and English.
He’s been running his wine bar for three years as a way to give people a place to go and relax.
“It’s something people can use,” Ebrahimpour said. “And they come back and use it more. An osteria is a place for people to get something to eat, something to drink and they don’t have to pay much money.”
Amedeo said it’s not just the regulars that make it communal – the friendly atmosphere is infectious.
“What happens when you come here is you get involved in conversations,” he said.
“It’s different, different from a restaurant,” he said on what he’s most proud of about Amedeo’s. “I think we create a very comfortable atmosphere. People pay a bill, but they are happy. Most of the people that come here, they want to come back. That’s a good thing.”
Amedeo’s wine collection is exclusively Italian.
“We don’t have heavy food, so usually you choose a lighter wine, a conversation wine,” he said. “I have a lot of favorites, but you have to drink it with the food.”
For two of the bartenders at Amedeo’s, the wine bar lives up to its name, both in price and intimate atmosphere.
Tim Smith, a student at University of Maryland who lives in Baltimore, has been working at Amedeo’s for about a year.
“It’s very communal,” he said. “It’s really enjoyable. We get locals and tourists alike, but mostly locals.”
Smith said he used to work at Amicci’s, one of the larger and more popular restaurants of Little Italy, but was drawn to Amedeo’s local, cozy vibe.
“I used to come over here after our shifts and grab a bite or a glass of wine,” he said “The people that I met in here were just more personal. There’s more of a connection as opposed to just serving people and trying to flip the table and get them out the door.”
Amedeo’s caters to an evening crowd. The bar opens at 4 p.m. and closes at 1 a.m.
“The only thing that’s typical about [a work day] is I know when I’m clocking in and I know when I’m clocking out,” Smith said. “Other than that, it just depends who I’m dealing with at the moment.”
Smith said he loves interacting with all of Amedeo’s customers.
“Working here is fun, it’s really laid back,” Smith said. “At times it’s like I’m hanging out with friends and I’m just the one handing everybody drinks.”
Smith said Amedeo’s is truly a hidden hangout in Little Italy.
“When anybody Googles ‘Little Italy Baltimore’, all those places [on High Street] show up,” he said. “We don’t necessarily suffer from that, but we are hidden. We are getting more people who were recommended to come here now, and they continue to come back. So I guess we’re doing something right.”
Carson Jacokes said he comes to the wine bar because of the food and the people.
“Amedeo’s an old friend,” Jacokes said. “You try to support good people. They have good food and they have a great staff.”
Jacokes said there are a lot of restaurants in Little Italy but not as many bars, and he likes having a neighborhood bar like Amedeo’s.
“You come in and you know people,” he said. “It’s always a welcoming place.”
Michele Seager has been working at Amedeo’s since January, but she’s been going there for much longer.
“You felt like Norm from Cheers,” Seager said. “Everybody knows your name and you feel special when you come in. It just makes you happy after a long day.”
Smith said Amedeo’s has high quality food and drink without the marked up price.
“You could get a bottle of wine here for 40 bucks,” he said. “You go to one of those places around the corner and you’re paying 80 to 110 bucks for the same bottle.”
Smith said Little Italy is one of the few neighborhoods in the city where people care about who’s moving in and who’s moving out.
“Little Italy is definitely the last best neighborhood in Baltimore,” he said.
To find dessert after wine and dinner at Amedeo’s, look no further than Bank Street, location of Piedigrotta’s Bakery. The cheerful interior includes brightly colored paintings, hand-painted names of Italian desserts along the walls, and family photos stacked on the counter. The array of vibrant desserts is a feast for the eyes: slices of rainbow layer cake, swirled cookies with multicolored sprinkles, powdered sugar cookies, tiramisu.
Antonio Iannaccone has been in the pastry business for 56 years. At 9 years old he began working and learning the baking trade in his native Italy. He and his wife Bruna established Piedigrotta Bakery 11 years ago.
“Everybody has a gift,” Iannaccone said as he threw flour onto a slab of cookie dough. “You need to have a passion, and not just for money. That is a mistake.”
Iannaccone said Piedigrotta’s offers many things other bakeries don’t.
“When I [first] came here, there was 25 bakeries,” he said. “But they don’t do anything. People can buy a couple pastries, but it is no bakery. This one is a bakery. We can do food, gelato, cakes, wedding cakes, and more.”
Tiramisu is one of the most popular dishes among customers at Piedigrotta. Rightfully so, as Iannaccone is credited with inventing tiramisu. He said he put it together after completing three years of school in Italy. There in Italy Iannaccone’s food company was very successful.
“I had two thousand customers with a truck delivering everywhere in the region,” he said. “Everywhere, including Venice. We did very good.”
Iannaccone said competitors got jealous of his company’s success and tried to figure out his techniques, but there’s only one way to get his tiramisu.
“Basically, you’ve got to buy it from me,” he said.
Erika Alexander stopped in Piedigrotta’s on a whim. Alexander said the last time she was at the bakery she got gnocchi and gelato, but this time she ordered dessert.
“I like the tiramisu,” Alexander said. “It’s really good. I’m also a sucker for homemade espresso, and they make really good espresso.”
Alexander said Piedigrotta’s caught her eye as she was looking for a place to eat and liked the look of it.
“I think it’s really cute,” she said. “It has a nice atmosphere.”
Iannaccone said that running a restaurant requires a lot of heart. You need both physical and inner strength to run a business.
“Before you run you’ve got to learn to walk,” he said. “People open restaurants because they feel like a king, but you need to have the soul to do it.”
Iannaccone said far from being trivial, good food is a necessity for life.
“We don’t live just for nutrition,” he said. “We live to taste the flavor.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about Iannaccone is that he doesn’t boast about his bakery or his other accomplishments. He believes in letting customers speak for themselves.
“I can’t lie,” he said. “[To say] ‘Oh this place is magnificent, this is the best in the world,’ no. I tell the people that [if you] taste the flavor, you’ll understand. You’ve got to see the presentation and judge the flavor.”
After cutting the dough and stuffing each individual tart with lemon filling, Iannaccone methodically placed them onto a giant cookie sheet and slid it onto a metal cart. He wipes the flour from his hands onto his apron and shrugs.
“I’m just normal,” he said as he pushed the cart of tarts into the standing oven. The wheels squeaked loudly as he shut the door. “I’m a normal person.”