Leod Matricciani rested both his elbows against a U.S. mailbox in front of the Casa Bianca bar-restaurant - a spot in Baltimore's Little Italy that the neighborhood people jokingly call his office. He kept a watchful eye on the busy intersection before him.

"Hey, don't you stop for stop sign?" Matricciani boomed at a man in a black Buick convertible who flashed past the sign.

"Hey, who made you a cop all of a sudden, Leo,?" chided one of his companions on the Casa Bianca corner.

Matricciani does not live in Little Italy, that lively 12-block square in east Baltimore that is home for some 1,000 Italians and Italian-Americans. But he was born just around the corner from the Casa Bianca, went to school three blocks away at St. Leo's Catholic grammar school, and played stickball on these very streets.

There are few people who pass the intersection of Fawn and High Streets in the heart of Little Italy whom Matricciani doesn't know.

He comes here on his days off from work as a foreman on the waterfront to "hang" on the same corner he did as a teen-ager - to gossip, joke, argue and keep watch over the neighborhood with his boyhood friends who are now also in their 50s, and just as silver-haired and pot-bellied as he.

In a city where neighborhoods have names like Greek Hill and Polish Town, the one called Little Italy is recognized citywide as "the neighborhood of neighborhoods." More like a tiny village than a piece of Maryland's most cosmopolitan city. LIttle Italy had its own stores, school, church, funeral parlor, and since last summer, its own health center.

Baltimores' Little Italy is different from its sister community on New York's lower east side, which is struggling to survive amidst decaying, century-old tenements and the ever-increasing crime on it outskirts.

In Baltimore the two-and three-story stone houses of Little Italy are privately owned for the most part and have been kept up by the families who have owned and lived in them for generations. The litter-free streets and immaculate homes of the sector stand in marked contrast to the boarded-up buildings and dirty streets of an East Lombard Street neighborhood just four or five blocks away.

Though it is no longer host to a constant flow of Italian immigrants, as is the famous north end neighborhood of Boston, "you will never see a 'for sale' sign on any house," one resident boasts, because those who grew up here tend to stay, and many who have moved out are coming back.

The characteristics common to Little Italys across America - like the Blessed Mother statues displayed in windows and a tenacious neighborhood pride - make these neighborhoods places where many Italian-Americans can feel at home. Even for a visitor, it's like meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers.

It is a community for which the people of Baltimore's Little Italy say they would willingly fight.

"During the (race) riots (of the 1960s), about 50 men from the neighborhood stayed in Velleggia's restaurant (on Albemarie Street) night and day. They were armed . . . they had walkie talkie . . . they were ready for anything," lifelong resident Ralph Marsili recalled proudly.

Little Italy, which touches on several low-income housing projects where mostly black families live, was left unscathed by the riots.

"Look around this neighborhood and you'll see 75 per cent of the people are related to one another," points out Sandy Milio, 25, who has decided to raise his 9-month-old daughter in the same surroundings in which he grew up and has purchased a home near his mother's.

"If somebody was attacking an old person on the streets of Little Italy, not just one of us would go over and help that old person," says Billy Pompa, 29, who moved back to the neighborhood after his family moved out.

"All six of us would run to help," says the husky, curly-haired Pompa, motioning to his five buddies standing in front of Mugavero's luncheonette - an area known for three generations as "Mugs' corner."

As if it were planned, some shouts rise up from about a half block away as Pompa is talking - two neighborhood boys are entangled in a fist fight over two neighborhood girls. One of the boys already had bloody eye, the other a bloody nose.

Pompa drops off his sentence and marches over to the fighting youths who are by now literally at each other's throats. His five buddies follow dutifully. Four white-haired women who were sitting in lawn chairs outside their house rise up to watch the commotion. One of them calls. "Stop it, Patty, stop it, Patty, your mother is sick," to one of the boys involved in the fight.

Patty's mother races down the stone steps of her house and gets between the punching, kicking boys.

"These are neighborhood boys . . . they grew up together," she cries aloud at the crowd of neighbors who are standing by - as if somehow that makes a difference.

Finally, Pompa and his friends push one of the fighters into the door of his house and warn him to stay there.

Just as quickly as the fight started, it is over. The white-haired women sit back down. The neighborhood is quiet.

A police car arrives, sending most people back into their house, and Pompa and his friends shuffle off the street into Mugavero's.

"What are they doing there?" snarls one of Pompa's companions at the police car's intrusion.

In the shelter of Mugavero's, Pompa finishes his sentence. "When the chips are down, we stick together in this neighborhood . . . more than in any other neighborhood."

Though the same family names keep cropping up, to those who remember Little Italy in the 1920s and 1930s the community is only a shadow of what it used to be. Hemmed in by its natural boundary, the waterfront, on the west and south. Little Italy is now blocked from expanding by low-income housing projects on the north and east.

"Those projects - they're like the Berlin Wall," says Leo Matricciani bitterly.

The signs of aging in Little Italy are subtle. This year, its Little League died. And for the first time ever, St. Leo's grammar school will have an allay faculty come September because the church's pastor can no longer find a religious order of nuns that wants to run a school with only a few hundred pupils.

Still, this tiny area has managed to produce two mayors (the Thomas D'Alesandos - father and son), two congressmen, two state senators and a city councilman.

Still, there are St. Gabriel processions every August - like the one held yesterday - which attract hundreds of visitors and former residents to Little Italy and raise thousands of dollars for tiny St. Leo's school.

The people of little Italy - the stone masons, construction workers, the waterfront linemen the restaurant owners and cooks, the iron workers, machinists, tailors and housewives - "have an enormous staying power, which I don't think even they understand," says Gilbert Sandler, author of a book about Baltimore's Little Italy called "The Neighborhood."

"Here, the people have a mystical commitment to their own streets."