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Our 2017 Road Trip, Part 34: Tour of Little Italy

Vaccaro's pastries!

Who needs artisan donuts when you can have bona fide Italian pastry?

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. For 2017 our ultimate destination of choice was the city of Baltimore, Maryland. You might remember it from such TV shows as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, not exactly the most enticing showcases to lure in prospective tourists. Though folks who know me best know I’m one of those guys who won’t shut up about The Wire, a Baltimore walkabout was Anne’s idea. Setting aside my fandom, as a major history buff she was first to remind skeptics who made worried faces at us for this plan that Maryland was one of the original thirteen American colonies and, urban decay notwithstanding, remains packed with notable history and architecture from ye olde Founding Father times. In the course of our research we were surprised to discover Baltimore also has an entire designated tourist-trap section covered with things to do. And if we just so happened to run across former filming locations without getting shot, happy bonus…

Throughout our stay in Baltimore, nearly all our paths to and from the Inner Harbor took us through the heart of their very own Little Italy. We’ve walked near Manhattan’s version a few times on our 2011 and 2016 vacations, but were hobbled both times by a third companion who is among the six people nationwide that dislike Italian cuisine. Also, Manhattan’s is only a couple of blocks long and adjacent to Chinatown, so its restaurants are too easy to bypass in favor of the dozens of other nearby options. This time in Baltimore, it was just the two of us — no excuses and almost no barriers.

Baltimore’s Little Italy comprises several streets and blocks, encompassing both the African American History Museum and the Flag House to the west, and ending with its southeast corner a convenient block away from our hotel. When we weren’t stopping inside it, we were still walking through it here and there for frequent glimpses at an eminent immigrant neighborhood whose origins date back to the mid-1800s.

On one of our walks we passed by a pair of older women, sitting on their respective porches across the street from each other, yelling their conversation back and forth for several minutes. No anger, no cursing, no threats — just two friends chatting in their own way at top volume from where they were comfortable. Neither Anne nor I have ever seen such a scene happen outside old movies. It was all we could do not to stop and gawk like hicks.

Little Italy!

Your entrance from the west.

Little Italy sidewalk!

As above, so below.

mural!

One of a few murals around the place.

Gio Ristorante!

One of the approximately 17,000 Italian restaurants to choose from in their Little Italy.

On Monday, the evening of Day Three, we knew we had to try at least one Little Italy establishment. The Google Maps search results for nearby restaurants pelted us with more red dots than a platoon of angry snipers. Our criteria:

* No five-star meals this early into our trip
* No formal wear required (we nearly never pack any)
* Not in the mood for pizza yet
* Had to have an active website that we could peruse
* Options besides just spaghetti (not that spaghetti’s bad, of course)

The eventual winner after much hemming and hawing was a casual place called Amicci’s, in the biz since 1991, which probably makes them one of the youngsters of the bunch. Every restaurant had more restaurants surrounding it, yet somehow they all stay in business. Presumably they all possess their own unique strengths or favored demographics.

Amicci's!

Many streets were narrow, full of businesses, and with more cars than pedestrians lining the streets.

Amicci’s on Monday night was a little busy, but we got a table without reservations or a wait. After a round of garlic cheese bread (not pictured), we settled in and enjoyed the ambiance, despite the TV on the other side of the room showing Tommy Boy.

squid brick!

Happy squid chef welcomes you!

Movie Posters!

To my left, three Academy Award Best Picture nominees of varying Italian pedigree. Out of frame and to my right, a poster for Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.

lasagna!

We each kept our main dishes simple in our own ways. Anne had her basic lasagna…

chicken tortellini!

…while I went with their Penny’s Tortellini, sautéed with chicken and roasted red peppers in authentic alfredo. I probably should’ve said “when” a bit sooner when our waitress applied the shredded parmesan.

Between the generous bread and these plates denser than they look, we failed to leave room for dessert. It saddens us whenever this happens, but it keeps happening as we get older. Anne is realistic about her appetite, while I realize I can’t eat like a college freshman anymore.

We remedied that oversight on Day Five. After our long afternoon nap, followed by a bout of dissatisfying early-evening pizza, we turned once again to the power of internet in hopes of finding suitable dessert anywhere nearby that wasn’t a chain, thus disqualifying the Häagen-Dazs we’d found on Day Two or any place containing the word “Dunkin”. A much quicker selection process directed us to a source of sugary salvation at Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop, precisely the kind of magical bakery we’d hoped to find. They have two other locations in Maryland, but the original in Little Italy has been a fixture since 1956. The son of the original founder continues Dad’s proud tradition today with fabulous results.

Vaccaro's!

“Life is short, eat dessert first.” With apologies to Amicci’s, words we could’ve lived by.

Vaccaro's snacks!

So many snacks. So many flavors. So many breakfast options. So many calories from heaven.

Vaccaro's gelato!

Mandatory gelato assortment.

And that’s the story of how we found the greatest desserts of our entire 2017 road trip. And, consequently, spent 2½ times at Vacccaro’s what we’d spent elsewhere on our mini-pizza main course. We got a small grocery bag to-go and snacked in our hotel far from all judging eyes except our own.

Cookies!

I’d like to point out in our defense we did not eat all of this in one sitting, but exercised a modicum of self-control and saved over half of our acquisitions for the next day.

Cookie flavors, left to right: almond, ricotta, salted caramel, and Nutella. At upper left is a chocolate/vanilla napoleon, one of those desserts concocted so many times in the early seasons of Food Network’s Chopped that the judges now visibly cringe whenever a contestant makes one, whether it’s wonderful or not. As this one was.

At upper right is a sfogliatelle, a word I’ve heard exactly once in my life before this trip. And yes, it was on Chopped. It’s a filled pastry sliced in such a way that the layers separate into leaf-like layers while baking. However, full regrettable disclosure: I saved this dessert till last, and by “last” I mean two days later. I was unaware that freshness was a key feature of sfogliatelle until I took a late bite and found the outer shell now had the texture of artichoke leaves. Lesson learned the hard way, emphasis on hard.

(P.S.: please don’t ask me how I know what artichoke leaves taste like because that’s a more embarrassing story from some other city some other time.)

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

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