The streets of Little Italy were buzzing last week. On sucessive days, two presidential candidates had swept through the tiny ethnic enclave, dined at two of its famous restaurants and pleaded for the residents' vote in Tuesday's Maryland primary.

The debate in the streets had nothing to do with inflation or Iran or the merits of the two visitors, RepublicanGeorge Bush and Democrat Edward Kennedy, or even why -- with days to go before the primary -- they would stump a community with only 500 registered voters. The debate in the streets dealt with more immediate concerns.

"I wonder why Kennedy ate at Sabatino's," said a tiny gray-haired Italian matron to no one in particular. "You know Carter ate at Chiapparelli's. Maybe Kennedy is mad at Chiapparellie's. And Bush ate at Ruso's. I wonder why?"

Such questions loom in importance in this four square-block slice of east Baltimore, which has a dozen restaurants that over the years have spawned politics all their own.

Everyone knows, of example, that former Gov. Marvin Mandel and former Vice President Spiro Agnew were regulars at Sabatino's, that Congress-woman Barbara Mikulski favors Chiapparelli's, as did Benjamin Civiletti in his days as a Baltimore prosecutor, that others go to Valleggia's, to DeNittis' and so on. The list stretches all the way back to the days when Baltimore elected its first mayor from Little Italy, Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., making the quarter the prime meeting place for those seeking to build and wield political influence. Hence, the keen attention to who eats where.

There were rampant rumors, for example, that Carter chose Chiapparelli's when he visited Baltimore last August because two of Sabatino's most celebrated patrons -- Mandel and Agnew -- had run afoul of the law and its maitre d'hotel, Albert C. Isella was facing criminal charges for possession of stolen goods and illegally purchasing $4,900 in food stamps.

"Of course," says Steve Kuehn, manager of Chiapparelli's, "We like to think he ate here because of the food."

Little Italy, once the populous center of Italian immigrant life, has now lost most of its residents to the suburbs (only 735 remain, most of them elderly), and much of its land to housing projects. Yet, the ritual pilgrimage of politicians at election time continues.

The reason is hardly a mystery: Taking one's campaign to Little Italy is one sure way to get the attention of television camera crews and news photographers, always eager for a picturesque backdrop. It is a perfect sound stage.

The television footage and news photos of Kennedy and Bush last week transmitted the message to Maryland's considerable number of Italian voters, many of whom trace their American roots to Little Italy, that the candidates have not forgotten them.

"Being photographed in front of Sabatino's and inside Chiapparelli's, I think they get more out of it than we do," said Little Italy resident Joe Scalia, a city inspector, as he and a neighbor discussed the latest political visits. "Of course, we enjoy the attention," he added with a big grin and a shrug.

Indeed they do. After President Carter dined at Chiapparelli's last August, the owner had his entire place setting encased in glass -- table cloth and all -- displayed it in an upstairs dining room. The restaurant's red, white and green menu highlights the chicken cacciatore -- the entree Carter ate -- as "president's choice."

Even though Kennedy chose Sabbatino's last week, the employes of Chiapparelli's still were gloating that they had hosted a full-fledged president rather than simply a contender.

"Did you see how long Kennedy spent over there?" a Chiapparelli's waiter boasted, gesturing across the street to Sabatino's. "Fifteen minutes!" That's all! Fifteen minutes! Carter was here for an hour."

Kennedy, delayed on his way to Little Italy, did have to rush through his opulent spread of veal francese, tortellini, fettucini and white wine, but he managed to eat most of it, contended Ricky Rotondo, one of Sabatino's owners.

"He had a good appetite. He was still putting it in his mouth when he got up," Rotondo said proudly.

The residents of Little Italy line the streets for all sorts of celebrated candidates, even if they do not support them. For example, although only four known Republicans live in the intensely Democratic neighborhood, George Bush was greeted by about two-dozen men and women, including Julietta DiPietro little Italy's oldest resident, who is believed to have never voted Republican in her 94 years.

It is said that Baltimore's illustrious H. L. Mencken, another Little Italy regular, once tried without success to put a stop to all the drooling over celebrities' visits to the restaurants.

The story goes that Mencken, dining at the now-defunct Maria's Restaurant, looked disapprovingly at a wall covered with pictures of famous guests, each autographed with compliments to the owner, Maria Allori.

"Hey, Maria," Mencken reportedly grumbled. "Get these Goddamned cheap pictures of these stupid people off these walls. You don't need their endorsement. They need yours."