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Vacarro’s—a sweet taste of Little Italy

Where else can you find an all-dessert full service restaurant in Baltimore? This sweet Italian tradition started as a carryout-only bakery in 1956. Thirty years later, the owner’s son, Dominico "Nick" Vacarro, moved the bakery across the street to create a place where customers could enjoy table service with their desserts and coffee.

Today, with six locations in the Baltimore-D.C. area and a wholesale business on the side, Vacarro’s is as popular a place for dessert as ever.

"We go through 10,000 to 15,000 canolis a week," said Alfredo Rotunno, the general manager for all Vacarro’s locations. "They’re just a true Sicilian dessert, one of the old school true Sicilian desserts." That figure is for the whole business, not just the Little Italy store. But still–where do they store all that sugar?

It’s called a commissary–a central location where they do all the mixing, creaming and baking for the business. Theirs is a 15,000-square-foot building on Baltimore Street. "We used to make everything here in the basement," Rotunno said. But business was growing, and that basement got smaller every day.

Rotunno said they sell in bulk to two or three distributors, and more than 60 regular customers buy wholesale. But he insists the restaurants bring in the most money. "Retail is the bread and butter," he said.

He revealed an attempt to expand the business once by selling more bread than butter. They tried to sell more traditional café menu items like sandwiches. But the effort failed quickly because, as Rotunno put it, "That’s something we didn’t know how to do."

But ice cream and napoleons, that’s something they do know how to do…with dexterity.

The gelato (Italian for "ice cream") comes in a variety of flavors imported from Italy, the most popular of which is Baci–chocolate hazelnut. You can also try chocolate chip, peanutto and fudge (chocolate peanut butter) amaretto, or strawberry cheesecake. All of the flavors stretch off your spoon like pizza cheese.

"Gelato is a little richer, a little creamier than regular ice cream," Rotunno said. You will quickly discover, however, that "little" is an understatement. In fact, you may wonder if that empty basement is now used to milk cows for all the cream you’ll find in this ice cream.

"It’s not at zero degrees like regular ice cream," he said. "In order to make it scoopable and make it creamy, it’s got to be at 15 or 20 degrees."

And the portion sizes are anything but stingy. So when you leave this bakery, you’ll feel as if you ate a whole meal. "If you get a piece of something, we’ll double it and give you two pieces. If you order a piece of spumoni, we give you two; if you order an éclair truffle, we give you two; if you order a tartuffo, we give you two. And that’s what we feel keeps you coming back," he said. "One of the main reasons people come back is because they get a lot for their money, and that’s why most, if not all, of our desserts are huge."

They also do coffee drinks, even alcoholic ones. And the pumpkin spice chai latte tastes how Halloween would be celebrated in heaven.

"We were doing cappuccinos and espresso when there was no Starbucks. There weren’t any of these places," Rotunno said. "When we were doing cappuccinos in the late '80s, most people didn’t know what the heck they were. We were doing 12 to 20 cappuccinos a week, and now we do that probably in 10 minutes."

Cappuccino "Vacarro’s style" is made a little different from the conventional cappuccino. Vacarro's uses a secret ingredient in place of the froth usually found in this favorite drink. "We used to put whipped cream on our cappuccinos and it kind of stayed that way–Vacarro’s style," Rotunno said.

They even offer insulated doggie bags for gelato you can’t fit down. "So much gets wasted," Rotunno said. "Now people take it home. We try to push that so we don’t waste it."

Vacarro’s could be called a patisserie, but Rotunno thinks that is too fancy of a label for them. So call them a bakery, upscale. Just be sure to visit them on an empty stomach because at this bakery, there’s no room for dinner and dessert.

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