I used to think my husband's only flaw was that he was born and raised in Baltimore, a city specifically invented to illustrate urban blight. Of course, one's views change over the years. I have found that my husband has a couple of other flaws. I have also learned that Baltimore isn't just an aberration on the New York-Washington corridor, but a lively, changing city offering far more than beer and the Birds.
In fact, our family abandoned Washington, queen of the red, white and blue, to seek fun and food in Baltimore on the Fourth of July. We picked up my mother-in-law at her home in Catonsville on the city's outskirts and watched the Catonsville Independence Day parade which hasn't changed since my husband marched for the Cub Scouts 30 years ago, except that [WORD ILLEGIBLE] from the 50's are now considered antiquities.
All that rubber necking on the curb made us hungry so we went down to the Baltimore Harbor in search of a place to eat supper. The waterfront area today looks like the Maine Avenue wharf, 14th Street, Georgetown and the Eckington yards rolled into one. Huge cranes for unloading cargo hover on the piers, grimy mills and factories - some long abandoned - dot the area, rail lines crisscross the streets and trailer trucks line up at warehouse docks. Saloons, grocery stores and cafes stand among the formstone rowhouses which have been home to dockworkers and merchants for decades.
If Baltimore's seaport image has a grubby, Charles Dickens side, it also has a life of its own that is attracting both tourists and new residents tired of the bland and predictable. Young people are buying the rowhouses and facelifting them with carriage lamps, brickwork and Williamsburg colors.
Urban renewal has helped. A handsome park now wraps around the southern part of the harbor near the brand new Maryland Science Center. Old crumbling buildings have been replaced by glassy towers surrounded by plazas and green spaces. New shops like those in the Cross Street Market and restaurants like the Sundae Times and the Soup Kitchen are welcomed in the area.
Ethnic pride is as strong as ever except that now outsiders as well as locals show up at the Polish festivals, Puerto Rican fairs and Greek-American Days. And the variety of restaurants serving everything from kielbasi to lentil soup to tortelloni is pleasing those who heretofore have been up to their hips in Big Macs!
We ran into one jam session and two block parties before we came to Little Italy, an old but increasingly popular haven for, you guessed it, Italian restaurants. The family went off in several directions reading menus posted outside Russo's (formerly anna Maria's), Sabatini's, the Trattoria Petrucci, Sergi's Ice House, the Roma and others. Our polls concluded that the prices were roughly the same, so we conducted on-the-street interviews to help us in our selection.
We cornered one young couple who looked intelligent, but more important, pleasantly sated, emerging from a place called Capriccio. We took their advice and entered.
The two-story Capriccio is not unlike a small New York bistro. The tables are set with double linen cloths and huge wine goblets, the waiters are well-trained and the host is gracious and aims to please - he did not even flinch at our Adidases.
Everything is a la carte, so it's possible to run up quite a bill, especially if you get into things like steak Diane which costs $12.50. On the other hand, the pasta dishes are in the $4 and $5 category. For an extra dollar, you can split entrees, not a bad idea given the quanitity and richness of the food. Our family of four had a sumptuous meal for $32.50, including tip.
My husband and our 9-year-old started with a fulsome minestrone. It finished off our daughter who found that the soup, along with a fistful of Italian bread, was enough for her. Our 11-year-old sizzled her tastebuds on the French onion soup which had just been pulled from the oven. Eyes watering, her head bobbed in approval over the gooey cheese crust and dark broth.
I had a light, creamy and icy cold vichysoisse which got half a demerit for having dried instead of fresh chives sprinkled on top. All soups were between $1.25 and $1.75.
The pasta dishes were first-rate. Cooked in the Northern Italian manner without gallons of tomato sauce, they are almost French in the use of garlic and spices. My husband's carbonara sauce, over spaghetti, was an elegant concoction of cream, eggs, pieces of bacon and cheese.
Our eldest, who had not yet dropped out of this culinary orgy, had fettucine with meat sauce (Bolognese), which was more brown than red and just plain delicious.
My brother had cannelloni, $5.25, noodle clinders stuffed with meat and covered with an obscenely rich sauce. And it took an act of high self-lessness for me to offer tastes of my linguine with white clam sauce.
Despite the prospects of gastric upset, we ordered two cannolis, $1.25, for dessert, assuming they would be as grand as everything that had gone before. We were right. The custardy filling spiked with cinnamon and chocolate bits had been stuffed into the pastry shell moments before coming to the table, keeping the whole kibosh from getting soggy.
Capriccio also offers several veal dishes in the $8 to 9 range, calamari fritti (squid) for $7.25, roast duck for $9.50 and chicken parmigiana, $6.50.
Baltimore is a grand place to hang out. Small fry of any age like walking around the harbor and going down into the hold of the Constellation, an 18th century warship, docked there. Fort McHenry of Revolutionary War fame is a quick drive to the south and the B and O Railroad Museum is at 901 Pratt St.
The Walters Art Gallery on North Charles Street is a gem and just happens to be in the middle of a shopping area filled with little boutiques. The old shot tower where bullets were made still intrigues, and the new Baltimore World Trade Center is impressive. And of course there's the Lexington Market up on Eutaw Street where you can buy everything from turnips to tuna.
All these places are within walking distance or a short drive from the harbor, which is 50-minutes from Washington. Interstate 95 leads you onto Russell Street. When you see the old Bromo-Seltzer clock tower looming up, look for Pratt Street, take a right, and you'll be at the docks.
An information kiosk on the water-front can assist you, as well as the Office of Promotion and Tourism in the Downtown Hilton Hotel at Baltimore and Liberty Street (301-752-8632). Capriccio
242 S. High St., Baltimore. 301-685-2710.
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Atmosphere: Cozy; professional service and caring food preparation.
Price range: Entrees from $4 to $12.50. No children's portions but meal splitting permitted.
Reservations: A good idea, especially on weekends.
Credit cards: VISA, American Express Master Charge.
Special facilities: Access for persons in wheelchairs difficult because of stairs; on-street parking.