Fine Dining in Baltimore’s Little Italy

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BALTIMORE — Da Mimmo is a family owned restaurant in this city’s Little Italy, about eight square blocks packed with restaurants. My lunch partner chose it and ranks it at the top of Little Italy, with perhaps one other establishment vying for the title. This elegant restaurant, with linen tablecloths and fine china, is named for our waiter, Mimmo Cricchio, the son of owner Mary Ann Cricchio. Da Mimmo marks 32 years in business next month. It has won many awards, from being named one of the top Italian restaurants by Zagat, to “Best Veal Chop” in Baltimore. That is what my partner ordered. I stuck with chicken stuffed with dried tomatoes, spinach and other goodies.

Da Mimmo has one key advantage over its competitors in Little Italy — a private parking lot that requires verbal permission via intercom to enter, and a token from the restaurant to exit. It also provides a limo service to ferry patrons from other parts of downtown.

In the bar area, the walls are covered with autographed photos of celebrities from film, music, pro athletics and politics. Bill Clinton ate here before he became serious about dieting. So did George W. Bush. Hillary is in a photo, sans, Bill. Ol’ Blue Eyes — Frank Sinatra — dined here at one point. A signed black-and-white photo is among the collection. Danny Devito, Michael Buble, Paul Anka, Faye Dunaway, Sylvester Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard and Stevie Wonder are also featured.

In most of the photos, Mimmo poses with the celebrity. With Sugar Ray Leonard, he looks perhaps 12 years old, even younger with Sylvester Stallone, perhaps college-aged, with Tony Bennett. Now Mimmo helps run the place in which he clearly grew up. He’s a handsome man, probably early 30s, immaculately dressed in coat and tie. This is not the type of place to show up in blue jeans and a T-shirt. I am glad I packed my sports jacket for this short business trip.

On our drive in from the airport, I received a windshield tour of Baltimore, a city I have visited twice before. There’s Raven Stadium, my companion said. Here’s Camden Yards, where I once watched the Red Sox after taking the train from Washington, D.C. It started raining in about the fifth inning, delaying the game for what turned out to be two-and-a-half hours. The person with whom I had made the trip down from D.C. suggested we leave. Leave a Red Sox game before the last out is played. This is sacrilege. We stayed. The Sox won.

Mimmo stopped to visit after we had finished our lunches, which was by leaps and bounds the finest Italian meal of my life. I avoid pasta on a current diet, but had to sample the bruschetta, which is tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil balanced on a slice of a baguette. An excellent salad and the chicken dish previously described left me sated but not in pain from having grossly overeaten. My companion did an admirable job putting away a thick veal chop about the size of a thick paperback novel. And during the 90 minutes we were there, not a single other person darkened the door of Da Mimmo. We asked why.

Mimmo has a few theories. The formality, distance from office buildings where workers only have an hour, change in dining habits. The evening and weekend business is still busy, and Da Mimmo will be around for a long time. Besides, he pointed out, even if the restaurant stopped serving lunch, several people would still be at work during the day, doing the prep work for the night crowd. The bartender would still have to restock, vegetables chopped, sauces made. With Mimmo serving as the sole waiter, payroll overhead is not excessive.

We talked for some time. Mimmo’s mom and the chef take patrons on tours of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, which is on the western side, down about the “ankle” of the country. Three are slated for next summer. It sounds tempting, though pricey.

I admire folks who run quality, non-chain restaurants. It is very hard work, with long hours, unreliable and often unreasonable customers, and often only modest profits. You have to love it, and Mimmo clearly does. Here’s hoping the lunch business picks up. The good folks of Baltimore do not know what they are missing.

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