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It’s movie night in Little Italy

What Mary Ann Cricchio wanted was a mural. What she got was a summer film festival that attracts thousands to one of Baltimore’s signature neighborhoods.

Maria Vaccaro, owner of Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop Inc, and Mary Ann Cricchio, owner of Da Mimmo Restaurant in front of the screen used for the summer film festival series in Little Italy. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record).

One of the founders of the Little Italy Outdoor Film Festival, which kicks off Friday with the traditional showing of “Moonstruck,” Cricchio also owns Da Mimmo restaurant. The restaurant’s parking lot, located on Stiles Street between High and Albemarle streets, serves as prime seating.

“By 4 o’clock, they’re already out there setting up their chairs and blankets,” said Maria Vaccaro, owner of Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop Inc. and president of the Little Italy Restaurant Association.

Live entertainment starts at 7 p.m., with the movie rolling two hours later.

The inaugural movie night drew 130 people. Now, crowds of up to 3,000 fill the parking lot and its surrounding area for some of the more enticing pictures. They come from as near as the neighborhood and as far as Washington, D.C, Delaware and Philadelphia, said Cricchio.

The festival takes place every Friday in July and August, with movie-goers bringing their own picnics, or enjoying carryout from the area’s restaurants, which offer movie night specials.

“We all love the film festival. It’s not that anybody does gangbusters business that day, because they don’t, but it brings people to the neighborhood, the community loves it,” said Vaccaro.

This year’s biggest night will probably be July 13, when the much-requested “The Godfather” will be shown for the first time in the festival’s 14-year history, said Cricchio, adding that the festival likes to stick to PG and PG-13 films. “The Godfather” is rated R.

Though the movie and popcorn are free, the event is not, carrying a price tag of about $2,000 per night, she said.

The film festival is put on by the Little Italy Restaurant Association, which consists of Da Mimmo, Vaccaro’s, Chiapparelli’s, Sabatino’s Italian Restaurant and Café Gia. Little Italy-based Colombo Bank provides the popcorn and about 200 folding chairs.

The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, through its MECU Neighborhood Events Grants program, help the restaurant association shoulder some of the cost.

“I think that the Little Italy Film Festival has been a great tradition and incorporates all of those elements of what a community can do when they come together to share their culture, to share their neighborhood, to share their cuisine and to watch films,” said Hannah Byron, who will give some remarks at Friday’s opening night and is the assistant secretary of tourism, film, and the arts for DBED.

But the whole thing may never have started if not for a series of seemingly serendipitous circumstances.

After Pastore’s Wholesale Grocers, formerly located on Pratt and Albemarle streets at the gateway to Little Italy, left the neighborhood, its painted “Baltimore’s Famous Little Italy” sign went with it. The area’s restaurants wanted to re-create the sign, which featured the names of local establishments.

They commissioned an artist, who recommended painting the mural on a piece of plywood, rather than on the Stiles Street-facing bricks of Ciao Bella restaurant, Cricchio said.

But after the community had put $2,000 toward the project, it found itself hit with an unexpected situation: A stop-work order from the city because the installation of a piece of plywood took the project from a mural — which they had a permit for — to a billboard, which they did not.

Stuck with a bare board, Cricchio wanted to find a way to make the best of the situation.

The answer came while on a trip to Palermo, Sicily.

Wanting ice cream, she ventured into a nearby piazza to feed the craving. She saw the square filled with people watching a movie on an outdoor screen.

Upon returning to the United States, she went to see former Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber to talk about the idea. Wielding photos of the area, Cricchio met a skeptical Kiefaber who quickly became a believer, driving to the neighborhood to take measurements.

What he found was an ideal 108-foot distance from the third-story window of a house directly across from the would-be screen.

Next came the big ask: John Pente, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, lived in the house whose window was in perfect film-projecting range. He agreed to open his doors.

Raymond Lancelotta, owner of the home out of which the movie projector is operated during the film festival.

Soon, four guys from Cricchio’s restaurant  were hoisting the enormous projector up flights of winding stairs.

Every year, Cricchio went back to Pente to ask permission to use his third-story window for the projector. Every year, he said yes.

But in July 2010, at the age of 100, Pente died.

His daughter brought Cricchio a note.

“It said, ‘I have not been feeling well. If anything happens to me during the film festival, I want this season to finish,’” Cricchio said.

“Then the film festival ended and we kind of sweat for about six months because we didn’t know what was going to happen: Were they going to sell the house to someone else? Was someone else going to buy the house? They could ask us for rent,” Cricchio said.

The house did get sold — to Pente’s nephew, Raymond Lancelotta.

The Little Italy native, who returned to the neighborhood after living in Parkville, didn’t skip a beat when Cricchio approached him about using the window.

“I wanted to keep the tradition going on and I wanted to honor my uncle,” he said.

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