By Abe Villarreal

In a small, corner pizzeria, on a regular looking street, surrounded by row houses in the Little Italy section of Baltimore, I met a lady named Marianne Campanelli.

Three of us, in town for a work conference, walked in to have a bite. We expected to walk into a trendy pizza place. There was a bar and only a few tables all along big windows looking over the narrow streets of a neighborhood where Italian pride was very evident.

Flags of green, white, and red everywhere. Catholic churches had names of Italians who for generations had made this corner of Baltimore their own. And on the night before we left town, when a slice of authentic pizza was calling our name, we met Marianne.

She greeted us when we walked in as if she was the owner of the place. A hello from a short 80-year old lady wearing glasses and a big smile. We found our seats, ordered our pizza and took in the place.

And then, Marianne did what she does best. She came to our table, asked where we were visiting from and made us feel at home. Most importantly, she told us about who she was and why she was there, in Little Italy, a member of the Campanelli family who had lived in the same house down the street for over 100 years.

A granddaughter of an immigrant who left his parents and wife to travel to America, in search of something better. He was poor but with the help of a private nurse that vouched for his healthiness, he was welcomed to the country. Baltimore would be his new home and in the house that Marianne still occupies a century later, generations of Campanellis would be raised.

Marianne told us about the old neighborhood where she serves as an ambassador, an unofficial mayor of sorts. She visits restaurants and local hangouts. She enters businesses to check in on them. When she wants to she helps to pass out waters and seats guests. She runs the place.

As we ate, we listened and we learned about the life of a lady with a purpose. We learned about the time she went to Italy to find her roots. She told us about her husband being excited to go back home for the first time, and the feelings they felt when her father came upon the old well his grandma used to send him down when he was five years old to get fresh water.

She said her grandfather told her that no one in the house was allowed to say the M word – Mussolini. How families still honor the Sunday family dinner tradition. How years ago there used to be up to three Italian groceries in the neighborhood but now they are all gone.

Marianne said that she doesn’t leave Little Italy too often. We told her about the southwest, the openness, the mountains, the desert beauty. She said she likes the rowhouses, the closeness of spaces, the people, all on top of each other. There is beauty in that, too.

Before we finished eating she taught us a few Italian phrases and told us to come back and see her again. That she would be there in Little Italy waiting for us, in a restaurant, or down the street walking to and back from the market. Going home to that row house place the Campenellis have known for over a century.

We can’t imagine being back in Little Italy without running into Marianne again. She’ll be there.

Abe Villarreal writes about life and culture in America. He can be reached at abevillarreal@hotmail.com.

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