FORGET ABOUT FACING the hassle of packing, international air travel and the ridiculously low value of the dollar.
Instead, head up I-95 to Baltimore, where globe-trotting is as simple as walking a few blocks — Little Italy famously greets anyone who wanders east of the Inner Harbor. It’s bordered by the up-and-coming Spanish Town, and it’s not too far from the Polish and Ukrainian communities tucked into Fells Point and Patterson Park. And just a bit further east is Greektown, where old men sitting around card tables playing backgammon can make you lose track of which continent you’re on altogether.
“It began because we’re a port, and immigrants have to land somewhere,” explains Anne Garside of the Maryland Historical Society.
Indeed, many sources claim that Baltimore ranked second after Ellis Island as an entry point to the United States throughout the 19th century — millions of people’s first view of the country was Charm City. Quite a few of them, apparently, decided to stay put.
There are hints of this history wherever you look, whether it’s Slainte Irish Pub (1702 Thames St.) in Fells Point — where owner Patrick Russell has photos of three of his Irish forebears on the walls — or the Jewish Museum of Maryland (15 Lloyd St., 410-732-6400), whose campus includes the Lloyd Street Synagogue, which dates back to 1845.
Or, possibly, you’ll run into Peggy Friedman, who dons a lacy white shirt and an indigo hat with matching feathers to lead the weekly immigration tour (Saturdays at noon, April-November, $10) presented by the Preservation Society (812 S. Ann St., 410-675-6750). “I’m dressed as an Irish immigrant from the 1880s,” she’ll explain, before leading her group along the water near Fells Point to expound on the various tribes that landed in Baltimore — Acadians from Nova Scotia, Haitians fleeing an uprising and then Germans, Irish, Poles, Ukrainians and more.
The ones who decided to linger often established small communities right around Fells Point. “This area offered immigrants the dream. There was housing, and jobs in canning, caulking and shipbuilding,” Friedman says.
The proof is in the pierogies. As the tour strolls through Broadway Market, it’s hard not to drool over the sausages at Sophia’s Place. A similar menu awaits over at Krakus Deli (1737 Fleet St.) and Ostrowski’s (524 S. Washington St.).
The prevalence of these businesses has everything to do with the proximity of St. Stanislaus Kostka, a Roman-Catholic church at the corner of Aliceanna and Ann streets. But though the building’s facade remains impressive — and a plaque details its importance to the city’s Polish residents since it was blessed and opened in 1880 — it’s been shuttered since 2000.
Religion has formed the cornerstone of virtually all of Baltimore’s ethnic enclaves and is the factor that kept them from dispersing into the suburbs during the tumult of the last century.
Just take a gander at Little Italy, especially on either the feast of St. Anthony (in June) or St. Gabriel (in August), when thousands flock there to gorge themselves on meatball subs, chicken Parmesan, pizzelles and beer, and watch bocce ball tournaments on the outdoor court (902-904 Stiles St.). None of it would exist if it weren’t for St. Leo the Great (227 S. Exeter St.) “It’s about keeping in touch with home and ancestry,” says Father Louis Rojas.
The church runs the Pandola Adult Learning Center (914 Stiles St.) for anyone — of Italian ancestry or otherwise — to study the language, and opera, limoncello making, Mediterranean cooking and painting.
But what surely attracts most people to the area are the endless blocks of good Italian restaurants. Germano’s Trattoria (300 S. High St.) boasts pasta demos, La Scala (1012 Eastern Ave.) features an indoor bocce court, and Della Notte (801 Eastern Ave.) has a swinging piano bar, and all of them have divine food. For dessert, you can crowd into Vaccaro’s (222 Albemarle St.) or take your sweet tooth over to hidden gem Piedigrotta (319 S. Central St.,), which is owned by the man who claims to have invented tiramisu.
Like Little Italy, Greektown has a two-track mind. “Our culture really centers around food and the church,” says Jason Filippou, director of development for the Greektown CDC. By the latter, he means St. Nicholas (520 S. Ponca St.), a Greek-Orthodox parish that remains popular with first-generation immigrants and hosts the region’s largest Hellenic festival every June. A community center currently under construction down the street promises to bring more revelry to the area via outdoor concerts and cultural events.
And just about everything in the area is done with a side of saganaki — Filippou wasn’t kidding about the zone’s emphasis on grub. Ikaros (4805 Eastern Ave.) and Acropolis (4718 Eastern Ave.) have been serving up moussaka since what feels like the beginning of time. Zorba’s (4710 Eastern Ave.) lures in customers with lamb spinning on a spit in the back. But it’s BYOB Samos (600 Oldham St.) where you’re most likely to face a wait. The hummus alone is worth it.
Feeling thirsty? Duck into Byzantio (4616 Eastern Ave.), a bar stocked with a swell selection of ouzos, where the tunes are straight out of Eurovision, the TV is tuned to Greek programming, and it’s common to see flying napkins. “Somebody likes the music, they throw a napkin,” explains Alex Dosis, whose father owns the joint.
For a souvenir, you can’t beat Kentrikon (4704 Eastern Ave.), a shop packed with Greek newspapers, christening candles and “Got Ouzo?” T-shirts.
“This place is a family place that brings people together,” says owner Nitsa Morekas.
The same could be said of one of Baltimore’s emerging ethnic neighborhoods, Spanish Town. It isn’t named for the nationality of its residents but rather their common language. And you’ll hear a lot of it if you head north on Broadway out of Fells Point, passing restaurants that serve up Mexican, Salvadoran and Ecuadorian food.
“There’s a saying that Hispanics tend to be of many races, but it’s the same culture. They share the same music and core values,” says Charles Ramos, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber.
Certainly, everyone, regardless of heritage, could get behind a visit to Arcos (129 S. Broadway,) Snag a table on the gorgeous back patio for an unbeatable location to enjoy enchiladas and margaritas, and bask in Baltimore’s continued multicultural legacy.
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express