by Chante Goodger
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
When people think of Baltimore, they may be influenced by stats that label the city as the murder capital. But Allison Robicelli, the author of “111 Places in Baltimore That You Must Not Miss,” points out the beauty encapsulated in this old town nicknamed “Charm City.”
Robicelli, a noted gourmet chef, uses her book to remind readers of the museums, food, and local artists that contribute so much to the city’s culture. The book was a joint project with her husband, Matt, also a chef.
“My background before I became a chef was studying metropolitan history, specifically in New York City where I grew up,” said Robicelli taking time from signing books at Towson University’s Bookstore recently.
“I noticed when I was young everybody is always looking straight ahead or down and nobody ever looked up,” she said, “but when I started looking up in New York and seeing all these beautiful buildings, seeing this ornamentation, [it] started to kind of get me interested in realizing that I am walking by this street corner everyday, kind of just rushing to work and learning that’s where Nathan Hale was executed in the American Revolution or this place by my dad’s job is where George Washington was inaugurated.”
The 38-year-old Robicelli, her hair tinted with a smoky blue dye, tackled Baltimore in a similar way. She said it took about eight months of writing, including researching at the library, doing secret shopping and walking around, talking to people. As soon as she constructed her extensive list of places to visit in Baltimore, she sent it to the publishers in Germany. The publishers narrowed the list down to 111 places.
“I honestly could have gone to 300,” she said in an interview with The Baltimore Watchdog. “People say how did I find so many places? I say how did I narrow it down? There is so much to discover out there.”
Typically, the university bookstore does not hold book signings because of the uncertainty of customer traffic generated each day, said Timothy S. Collins, store associate director. But Allison Robicelli reached out to the university.
“She emailed the university’s store page and I touched base with her over the summer,” said Ruth Evelyn Schmidt, graduation and promotion specialist who advertised the book signing at the beginning of the semester and during the Family Weekend. “It was pretty easy that way when you already have that person reaching out to you.”
Collins estimated that between a dozen to two dozen books are sold at such campus-sponsored event.
Rubbing the front orange cover of the book, Robicelli raved about historic phenomenon and mentioned that Baltimore was one of the top five most important cities in America. She said that for a while, the city was the second largest immigrant port to Ellis Island, which was a major focal point in the war for independence and the foundations of America.
“The railroad started here,” she said. “It wasn’t just here, the entire west opened up because of Baltimore, the entire history itself pivoted on the existence of this city.”
She exclaimed: “I loved writing this book and I love this city and I am just very grateful for everything surrounding all of this.”
Robicelli explained that every neighborhood has a great story and that it is the people that make Baltimore. In the journey writing the book, Robicelli said she and her husband made plenty of friends. Her husband described the experience as “wonderful” because they were still new to Baltimore.
“I like to treasure hunt underneath our feet,” said Allison Robicelli. “Baltimore, I had just gotten to know it before we started moving here because I loved the fact that it was an old historic city, I like the diversity, I like the passion of the people, and the culture and I love that do it yourself attitude.”
Robicelli said she was unable to introduce many key places in Baltimore. Lexington Market and Divine were a couple of the places that she tried to track down. Other places had been torn down or no longer existed. She and her husband delighted in what they did find, however.
“There’s a place called Pioneer Pit Beef I got to mention them fleetingly,” she said, turning to consult with her husband about the location on Security Boulevard. “Pioneer Pit Beef fricken fantastic!”
As far as a bakery?
“Oh boy, there’s a bakery in Highlandtown called Hoehn’s Bakery, which makes my favorite donuts in the entire world,” she said. “I always recommend donuts above everything.”
Matt Robicelli teasingly pleaded: “Don’t make me pick! The other 110 will hate me! Though George Washington’s teeth are pretty cool.”
The Robicellis have adapted to Baltimore although they are true New Yorkers. Allison was born in Brooklyn and said she loved exploring her backyard growing up in Bay Ridge. A fourth generation New Yorker, she grew up assuming that she would never leave the city.
As she tried her hand at municipal history and landmark preservation, Allison Robicelli said she was diagnosed with cancer five days before she turned 21 years old.
“A year in chemo part of me was pissed and part of me was like ‘if I sit around and just feel bad for myself, then cancer gets to take an entire year of my life and I don’t like that. I don’t want that,’” she said, “so I taught myself how to cook.”
Robicelli said she fell in love with food especially the storytelling, science, and history aspect of the industry.
Robicelli met Matt through mutual friends at a bar when they were 24 years old. Instantly, they fell in love because of their shared interests in food and history. Matt Robicelli is from Southern Brooklyn too. After a few weeks of dating, the pair became engaged six weeks later.
“We spent our entire lives 20 blocks from each other with the same friends and never met until we were 24,” he said.
The couple married in October 2006. Then, as soon as she turned 36 years old, they moved to Baltimore. In Baltimore, Allison Robicelli was unsure of what she would do if she was unable to work at a bakery while taking care of her two children and husband. A book deal offered by Emons Publishing was the answer to her worries.
“This is just sort of perfect,” she said of the move to Maryland. “Every New Yorker said that I would get sick of Baltimore but now I’m two years in and we are going to buy a house here now.”
The couple has two sons, Atticus and Toby. Before the latest book, she wrote “WWE: The Official Cookbook.” She wrote with her husband, “Robicellis: A Love Story with Cupcakes.” She said she had hoped to operate a bakery, Robicellis, in a different state but that plan came to a halt when her husband became ill.
“[The year] 2015 was spent in and out of the hospital with organ failure, which is as painful as it sounds,” said Matt Robicelli. “I was doing some consulting at the time, which was imperative, as authors don’t make much money while actually writing the book, so I could support us while it came together.”
Matt Robicelli said he was very happy about the book deal because he and his wife found different things to be interesting and were able to give the book a broader range of topics.
“We’d written a book together before, though it was a cookbook which is very different,” he said. “Allison is a great writer and I’m a good researcher, so together we make a great team.”
Annie Ross, a junior at Towson University who stopped by to get a signed copy of the book, said she liked the Robicelli’s approach.
“Great book for new residents to Baltimore like myself,” said Ross. “I like that the locations vary from candy shops to museums. In a society where Baltimore is viewed as a crime-ridden city, this book opens a reader’s eyes to the various reasons why Baltimore is so much more.”
Robicelli agreed that “111 Places in Baltimore That You Must Not Miss” is a great insider’s guide to Baltimore, a “magical” city. But she declared she would be writing cookbooks moving forward.
“This was really hard to write,” she said. “I took it because it is something that I’m not used to and I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and as a person. I loved it. I’m good at food, that’s my thing, but I hope that somebody writes another book about Baltimore that’s better than mine because everyone should know how great this city is.”
Collins said that the next bookstore event will feature political science enthusiast and former CNN senior copy editor John DeDakis.