It feels funny to describe a restaurant that has been in business since 1999 as “off the eaten path,” but that’s exactly what Vinny’s Italian Café is. A five-minute drive east from the edge of Canton is all it takes to get you there, but you might as well be a world, not a neighborhood, away. Auto-body shops on the industrial drive that is Holabird Avenue surround the white, L-shaped building with red ceramic shingles that owner Vinny Scotto helped build.
Inside, you’re greeted by a warm staff and the smell of simple, rich, traditional Italian food. “Everything is as good as it was 19 years ago,” says our waitress, Paula, who has worked at this hidden gem since it opened. “You’re in for a treat.”
On an early Saturday evening, with sporting events on a pair of TVs behind the bar of a large, open-concept dining room, our party of four settles into a booth in the unpretentious atmosphere of what locals call “the heart of Dundalk,” the historically blue-collar suburb. Families surround tables. A woman’s 28th birthday party is happening in the other room. Regular customers, like descendants of those who worked in Baltimore’s since-closed General Motors factory, order from the take-out counter, too.
Fresh pizza bread arrives on our table, then Paula is back, and we consult with her for recommendations from a menu that counts 75 dinner choices (and more for lunch, such as their trademark meatball sub, which dates back to the restaurant’s precursor, Marco’s).
We order a bottle of red, then Blue Point oysters and fried calamari for the table. Specials are typically imagined by Vinny, an Italian immigrant by way of Naples and New York, and his sons Marcello and Tony, who spent four years studying at the Culinary Institute of America. I decided on the rockfish Chesapeake with a fresh handmade spinach pasta.
My wife, who has celiac disease, enjoyed a gluten-free version of the chicken broccoli, a simple dish—chicken cooked in a rose cream sauce, tomato, garlic, olive oil, basil, and parsley, served over a bed of pasta (made with corn and rice flour, in her case) with broccoli—that is the restaurant’s top seller. Our guests went with more traditional choices, including the veal parmigiana and chicken marsala.
The portions are huge. This is one of those places where it looks like you didn’t make a dent in your food after 20 minutes of eating—and you don’t mind. Ingredients, like sweet, natural San Marzano tomatoes grown from the volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, are fresh. And you’re full and happy to have leftovers for tomorrow.
“The best thing is to use the right thing, you know?” Vinny says. “If I can buy something good, and it costs me a little more money, that’s okay. I’m looking to make people happy. Today, you don’t find a place like this anymore.”
That is, unless you know where to look.
›› VINNY’S ITALIAN CAFÉ 6212 Holabird Ave., 410-633-7709. Tues.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.