The men of Little Italy start coming home from the railroad and the brickyard and the construction pits around 3:30 p.m. The women have dinner on the table at 5 or 5:30, the local news is done at 6:30, the national an hour later.

And then, on those summer nights when the breeze comes up from the harbor, rustling the Bradford pear trees on Stiles Street, spinning the big yellow sunflower-shaped pinwheel on John Pente's rooftop terrace, sending the wonderful smells of Little Italy's restaurants all over the neighborhood, life moves out of doors, to the front stoops.

Conversation floats through the night, a hundred conversations become one sound, the sound of summer in the city, as constant and as familiar as the clicking of the crickets in the country. Only rarely does the drone of air-conditioning, or TV intrude, though on some nights, if Pompei Apicella is in the mood and feels like bringing his tape deck outside, you might hear Frank Sinatra or Jimmy Roselli or Luciano Pavarotti singing along Albemarle Street.

The generations of the 12-square-block East Baltimore neighborhood gather together outside, on the brick and white marble front steps of their 100-year-old brick row homes, on folding pastic and aluminum beach chairs set on the sidewalk, beneath the trees. All around them, there is great change: To the west, the glittery revitalization of the harbor area, drawing tourists who once come to Baltimore only to eat at Little Italy's restaurants; to the east and north, the development of housing projects; all over the city, people moving to the suburbs.

In Little Italy, the people are growing older, and fewer. But the neighborhood survives, along with its traditions. Sitting on the stoops on summer nights is a part of the rhythm of life here, like going to mass at St. Leo's on Sunday morning. Even Father Anthony Lorento, the priest at St. Leo's, certainly one of the most venerated men of the neighborhood, can't keep the people inside. When the temperature reached 92 degrees one day this week, he urged his parishioners after the noon mass to "go home, loosen your clothes, drink a lot of water, shut your windows and turn on the air-conditioning."

Margaret Petrella, 76, recalled Father Anthony's advice that evening, sitting on the stoop, as she does every night, with her neighbors Mary Terzi, 75, and Rose Strollo, 52. The three women beamed as a tall thin young man in black shirt and black pants approached: Louis John Phillips, St. Leo's 26-year-old deacon, soon to be ordained a priest.

"He's a wonderful deacon," said Petrella, a widow in a sleeveless cotton dress and red slippers, 53 years in the same brick row house, next door to Mary Terzi, on Stiles Street.

The deacon from Cleveland blushed.

The women and the deacon were joined by Strollo's 52-year-old husband Carmen, the wisecracking state highway road supervisor who makes the pizzas for all of Little Italy's festivals, and by Elia Mannetta, 29, the mustachioed neighborhood activist who ran for the Maryland House of Delegates -- and lost -- at age 21.

The deacon is hard-working, sweet, and a little shy; it is hard to resist teasing him, especially since he is a Hungarian in an Italian neighborhood.

"You should get married," Strollo said.

The men whispered and laughed among themselves then, and there was the mention of certain unpriestly pleasures that could be purchased, not far from Little Italy, for $30.

"He's going to be a priest in three weeks," Mannetta said. "We're trying to corrupt him." But on this night, the deacon was uncorruptible.

"You know," Strollo said, "Once in a while you should come around with a bottle of anisette."

The young deacon, while never having brought anisette to the parishioners, said he had brought something else, something better. "I brought culture to this neighborhood. I shared stuff with you. I brought cabbage. Stuffed cabbage."

Strollo, the pizza man, snorted behind his grey goatee.

A boy rode by on a 10-speed bicyle, carrying a bronze chandelier. A white Lincoln Continental parked across the street, and a young dark-haired pregnant woman got out.

"Peaches!" Mannetta called. "Hey, Peaches, what gives? When's the big opening?"

The young woman shrugged. "She's nine months plus," Mannetta said. "The whole neighborhood's waiting."

And when Peaches finally has her baby, it is a sure thing that the neighborhood will know almost as soon as her husband does. Secrets are scarce in Little Italy, and sometimes this makes the young people of the neighborhood furious.

Rose Guerra, 13, out with her friends on the steps in front of the Mercy Little Italy Health Center on Exeter Street, still smarted over the humiliation of last week: "My father punished me, and when I went outside the man across the street said, 'Is that the girl whose father hit her?' Everyone was saying it, everyone knew about it!"

Rose's black eyes flashed. She was with her 12-year-old sister, Enza, and their friends, Sherry Belardo, 15, and Josie Caronna, 12. They are growing up together on Exeter Street, and they will spend many of their summer nights, in blue jeans and Dr. Scholl's sandals, on the steps in front of the Mercy Little Italy Health Center, across from Mugavero's Confectionery.

The sun faded, dipping behind the rooftops, with their rows and rows of TV antennas silhouetted against the sky. The night was lit by a slice of moon and street lamps, here and there a cigarette. From the stoops, the houses looked dark and cool. The projects that edge against Little Italy on two sides became shadows. The people on the stoops whisper of the projects from time to time; they are afraid to go there. Their own neighborhood feels so safe.

The breeze picked up. Summer nights in Little Italy are filled with small pleasures: A breeze, a Coke and a game of pinball at Mugavero's, a walk around the block or over to Harborplace, the sweet-lemon ice at Vaccarro's Italian Pastries ("Cannoli Filled, 75 cents each; Rum Cake, $5.50; Sfogliatelli, 90 cents, Saturday only, By order"), which is open 'til 9 during the summer. Nick Vaccarro makes the flavored ice fresh each day, from a recipe his father brought from Sicily.

Albert and Leonora DeFelice, sitting on beach chairs in front of a row house on Eastern Avenue, with a view of a parking lot, had finished their Cokes from Mugavero's. Albert is 65, Leonora is 64. They could be two of the happiest people in all of Little Italy. They were married at the 4 p.m. mass at St. Leo's three weeks ago.

"We were childhood sweethearts," said DeFelice, a retired railroad man. "I used to carry her books to St. Leo's. She's a wonderful woman. I said, 'Leonora, if I don't marry you, I don't marry no one.'"

But Leonora married another boy, and he, she despaired, turned out to be the neighborhood Casanova. Albert, meanwhile, cared for his ill mother. He lost his left leg when he fell between two coal cars. He never married. Leonora finally divorced her husband. Albert's mother died.

"They say happiness comes to those who wait," Ablert said. "Well, I've waited 65 years."

Albert wasn't the only man in Little Italy with thoughts of romance on this summer night. On Albemarle Street, Pompei Apicella, the 49-year-old bricklayer with the ear for Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Roselli and Luciano Pavarotti, smoked a cigar on his front stoop and discussed his plans for Dolores Cherigo, his thin blonde neighbor.

"I'm getting a date for her -- the guy at the appliance store. He said to me, 'Why don't you get me one of those Italian girls?' I said I didn't know anyone, and then I realized I had one right under my nose -- two doors down -- Dolores."

It was almost midnight. To the west, the big MN on top of the 37-story Maryland National Bank Building glowed red against the black sky. The MN is a Baltimore weathermarker: If it's cold, the bank security guards light up the blue lights under the MN. If it's hot, they turn on the reds. In Baltimore in July, it feels as if the MN will never turn blue again.

In Little Italy, the old women in sleeveless flowered cotton dresses that have gone soft and faded with many washings stayed outside, talking and talking.They have been sitting on these stoops on summer nights since they were girls. They have heard all the stories and all the secrets. Soon, they will go inside. But tomorrow night they will be back, to their stoops and their conversations.