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July 19, 2009

Farewell to Baltimore

Little Italy Dominic Armato

Two years is a frustrating amount of time to spend someplace. It's a little too long to treat it as temporary, but long enough that you start to feel at home just about the time you're packing up to leave. Such was the case with Baltimore, which treated us pretty darn well for the couple of years we spent there. There are a lot of things we'll miss -- our neighbors and friends foremost -- but there are some foods that will be difficult to replace as well.

Steamed CrabsDominic Armato

Naturally, I'm going to miss Maryland's signature steamed blue crabs, so beloved that they appear (less steamed) on my driver's license. There's truly nothing like attacking a pile of sweet, steaming hot crabs and leaving nothing but chitinous carnage and empty beer bottles behind. I consumed them at tourist meccas like Obrycki's and sleepy little dockside joints like the Hard Yacht Club, but my go-to place became Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn, for its old-school charm, always fresh (if rarely local) crabs and house spice blend that is similar to but smoother and mellower than Old Bay. It's a tattered but beloved Barcalounger of a restaurant, helmed by Mr. Bill's son and a waitstaff that's been there forever, and even if the crabs could be duplicated outside of Maryland (doubtful), the scene definitely could not. When family and friends came to visit, this is where we took them for crabs. Next time, whenever that may be, we'll be the visitors.

Attman's PastramiDominic Armato

Deli isn't exactly a signature Baltimore food, but Baltimore has a helluva good one in Attman's. My arteries may have been cursed, but I still feel blessed to have had this third-generation joint around the corner for the past two years. Their corned beef was one of the first meats my son ever tried, and the fellas behind the counter practically watched him grow up, slipping him more smiles and free cookies than I can count. Most of the deli staples are there, but Attman's is most notable for the fact that they know their way around a brisket -- roasted, corned or smoked. I loved the intense, smoky pastrami on anything. I could eat piles of their smooth, mellow chopped liver, especially with corned beef, mustard and onions as part of the Gay Liveration sandwich. At one point, I settled into the Nosh on Rye as a favorite, which combined the excellent corned beef with the lush, satiny brisket plus cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing. But as much as the great sandwiches -- if not more -- I loved that it was a true neighborhood joint, stuffed with people sucking in their guts as they tried to squeeze their way to the back of the very, very long line during the lunch rush. This was another place that was home, and I'll miss being waited on, waited on, waited on.

Rinconcito Peruano's CevicheDominic Armato

I'm also going to miss some neighborhood haunts that are less thought of as Baltimore institutions. Among them is Rinconcito Peruano, a humble little family-run joint that brought me back to my whirlwind trip to South America. I'll miss sitting down to salty cancha and sweet, refreshing chicha morada. Succulent Pollo alla Brasa with fried yuca, tangy Lomo Saltado and the occasional Cuy Frito were all favorites, but the dish I'll really miss is the always outstanding fish ceviche, fresh, clean and spicy with onions, corn, sweet potatoes and crunchy cancha strewn throughout. A place worth supporting on the food alone, it was made more so by Luz, and impossibly friendly and welcoming woman who would constantly shuttle between the kitchen and dining room with a huge grin and recommendations for anybody anxious to explore a cuisine unfamiliar to many. And when she sensed that I needed a break from the little fella, she'd set him down with her grandson's toy truck, or slap him on her hip and carry him around while taking orders and serving food, insisting, despite my protestations, that I should take a few minutes to enjoy my lunch.

Tortilleria Sinaloa's TortillasDominic Armato

Tortilleria Sinaloa is, on the other hand, almost universally beloved in Baltimore. I was actually in the minority when it came to their tacos, preferring the succulent stewed meats of Palomino's across the street, the griddled tortillas and salty meats of Il Taquito to the East, and the lightly crisped tongue and vibrant salsa verde of Las Palmas to the West. But what was unimpeachable was the tortillas, freshly made on site every morning, sold in paper-wrapped bundles no smaller than a kilo, hot and steamy and impossible to resist on the way home. No less outstanding are the chips -- made from the same -- light and crisp and layered like a fine pastry. They were a regular stop on nights I cooked Mexican food and those light, fluffy tortillas have spoiled me. Going back will be a major adjustment.

Faidley's Haddock SandwichDominic Armato

I was also surprised and thrilled by Baltimore's markets, permanent and temporary. Lexington Market is the oldest and grandest of Baltimore's public markets, and in addition to the typical produce, meat and specialty foods, it's home to such iconic foods as Pollock Johnny's, Berger's Bakery and Faidley's, the last of which is the purveyor of one of my favorite foods. The crabcakes? No. I dig 'em, and as my first Baltimore crabcakes they were a revelation at the time, but there's better to be had. The first time I went to Faidley's, I asked the woman behind the counter what she liked best. "Fish," she told me. At the time, I thought this was incredibly -- perhaps intentionally -- unhelpful, since Faidley's serves seafood almost exclusively. But as I'd later discover, she was probably genuinely trying to steer me in the right direction. There's crab, clams, shrimp, sure, and most of these are good... but the fried fish sandwiches, especially the haddock sandwich, are second to none. Nothing fancy, it's just a huge slab of hot and crisp on the outside, tender and moist on the inside fried haddock served between a couple slices of white bread. The cole slaw and hot sauce are my own modifications. It's a sandwich the thought of which inspires sudden, intense cravings, and the fact that it's served in a market steeped in history and an integral part of its neighborhood makes it even tastier.

JFX Farmer's MarketDominic Armato

Even dearer to my heart, however, is the JFX farmers market. The world is full of many fine open-air markets, but this is one of the best I've encountered. Tucked under the highway every Sunday for eight months out of the year, what makes this market so special isn't its selection (extensive) or its quality (exceptional), but its patrons. These aren't tiny tables with limited stock priced sky high for people who can afford to spend $5 on a tomato (not that there's anything wrong with that). This is a market that the entire city enjoys -- one where people of diverse backgrounds do real shopping, carting away piles of food to get them through the week. It's one of the most bustling, energetic farmers markets I've seen, and it's given me such delights as dynamite fried mushrooms, bushels of soft shell crabs, piles of heirloom tomatoes of every variety and some darn good coffee, just for starters. I haven't yet explored Boston's farmers market scene, but I'll be shocked if it can provide anything on par with Baltimore's JFX market.

Piedigrotta's Meat PieDominic Armato

Of course, nothing's more special than a restaurant where the proprietors become true friends, and the two places I'll miss the most fall squarely into that category. When we first moved into the neighborhood, I decided to make it policy not to write about the restaurants of Little Italy until after we left. So it's with great pleasure that I can finally break my silence on Piedigrotta. My family's first experience with Piedigrotta was a quick cookie stop, when half of the husband/wife team, Bruna Iannacone, made my son laugh like I'd never heard before and have only rarely heard since. During our tenure in Baltimore, they moved around the corner into a bigger, incredibly cute space where customers can linger over their sweets and savories in a cozy atmosphere. Their claim to fame is the tiramisu, which Bruna's husband Carminantonio is reputed to have invented (it's a long story, but let's just say I don't doubt it for a second). But as dynamite as the cakes and cookies may be, I always found myself enjoying Bruna's savories just as much, if not more. It's homey, comforting Italian counter fare that's far more delicious than most of the full-service restaurants that surround it. Eggplant parmesan is luscious and tomatoey. Stuffed pastas like the spinach manicotti are among my son's favorites, grilled panini are simple and delicious and the spinach fritatta is hit with just a hint of jalapeno, making it non-canonically delicious. But I have a soft spot for the meat pie, a gooey mess of prosciutto cotto, mortadella and sausage suspended in a melty mix of cheeses and stuffed in a flaky crust that's actually fairly sweet -- a very welcome surprise. I ate it so much that Bruna finally stopped serving it to me, insisting I have something else, which is a good thing because otherwise I would have missed so many other great items. Most of the dishes are served up with a little bit of fruit, and when my son finished the strawberries on his plate, it wasn't uncommon for an entire pint to suddenly show up on the table, shortly before he was smothered with hugs and kisses from the Italian grandmother serving him. This is a true family place, run by a couple of absolutely wonderful people. The food is homey, comforting and wonderful, and we'll miss it almost as much as we'll miss the Iannacones.

Grace Garden's Fish NoodlesDominic Armato

The other Baltimore food family that will always be special to me are the Lis, Chun and Mei and their two kids, of Grace Garden down in Odenton. When my friends and I first walked into Grace Garden, it was an unknown little strip mall joint serving Sweet Sour Pork and Kung Pao Chicken carryout to the denizens of Fort Meade across the street. But it also boasted an ambitious menu of traditional Cantonese and Sichuan cuisine, and thanks to Frequent Crasher (who first outed them on Chowhound), we quickly discovered that this was not only the real deal, but an example thereof that would have impressed me if I'd eaten it on the other side of the Pacific. What followed was a meteoric rise to local culinary acclaim that couldn't have happened to more deserving folks. I've already filled two long posts with the fabulous foods of Chun's wok, and I could easily fill four more. Despite hailing from Hong Kong, Chef Li is incredibly well-versed in Sichuan cuisine, and I found myself amazed by Sichuan pork belly with rice powder, steamed in a lotus leaf and bursting with flavor. I crave fiery Sichuan fish fillets with the citrusy buzz of Sichuan peppercorns, the comforting spice of his Ma Po Dofu, the spicy, vinegary tang of the Peacock Chicken or the bold and balanced aggressiveness of what we lovingly named the Triple T -- chilled tongue, tendon and tripe in a Sichuan sauce. But while popular opinion seems to be that his Sichuan preparations comprise the more interesting potion of his menu, I'm of the opinion that his Cantonese dishes, though more subtle in flavor, are every bit their equal. Smoked Tea Duck, braised pork belly with mui choy, velvety Hong Kong style curry, simple steamed fish, dynamite all. But the best example of Chef Li's formidable technique and remarkable ability to balance flavors is probably the now famous fish noodles, tender and spongy with ginger, mushroom and slivered Chinese sausage for punch. It's been an amazing year for the Lis, but even more heartwarming than their food has been the looks on their faces as people have flocked to their tiny restaurant, not for the Americanized dishes, but for the traditional menu that they have so painstakingly crafted. The boost in business is wonderful, to be sure, but it seems that Chef Li derives even more joy simply from knowing that people are now coming for his food, his work, and that his talents are being appreciated in a way they weren't before. The Lis are kind and gracious folks, it's truly my honor to have played a small part in their recent success, and not only will I be pining for their creations, but I'll miss them terribly, too.

So consider this my love letter to the foods of Baltimore. There are many ways to experience a city, and I suppose it's only fitting that I met most of the people I'll miss through its foods, both those who prepared it for me and those -- like so many from Charm City Hounds and Don Rockwell -- who shared it with me. Leaving your hometown is never easy. But the places I mention above, and the people who frequented them with me, are what made Baltimore feel like home if only for a little while.

Thanks, guys. We'll come back to visit whenever we can.


Wow, Dom, that's a beautiful post. I want to move to Baltimore.

So where are you moving?

Boston. All moved. First restaurant post Wednesday (already written!).

Congratulations on the move, and many, many, many thanks for the return of Threepwood.

Hey Dom! Nice post. We miss you! Hope the kiddies are well! Kwan

Great post. I'll definitely have to check out your Bmore haunts. :-)

Wow that was so beautiful--what a shame Anthony Bourdain didn't read it before doing his "Wire" version of Baltimore food.

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