Overlooked in the recent rash of Little Italy restaurant deaths was a rebirth. As diners mourned the passing of longtime staples like Rocco’s Capriccio and Caesar’s Den, Greg Mugavero quietly re-opened his father’s sandwich shop, which, for more than six decades, epitomized the neighborhood’s flavor. In many ways, Mugs’ Italian Bistro is about more than food. It’s about paying homage to family and tribute to a neighborhood’s past.

Marion Mugavero, known to all as Mugs, began selling meatball subs, sausage sandwiches, and cold cuts at the corner of South Exeter and Fawn streets in 1947. Two years ago, at the age of 89, he finally closed Mugavero’s Lunch and allowed his son, Greg, to renovate and revive it. The younger Mugavero, a contractor by trade, modernized the space while preserving its interior layout and nostalgic feel. The old wooden lunch counter is now dark granite. He reupholstered the original stools. On the white walls hang photos of the old neighborhood and the old country, some of which Greg snapped himself during a trip to his family’s homeland in Sicily.

Mugs’ re-opened in July with a new name but the same simple offerings Marion favored. Greg added salads, a chicken-bacon-ranch panini, even an all-beef Hebrew National hot dog dubbed “The Rabbi.” But the meat of the menu remains cold cut, sausage, and meatball subs. 

Made fresh from scratch every morning, the meatballs are delicately seasoned, hand-shaped, and addictively delicious. The meatball sub features four, topped with provolone cheese and homemade tomato sauce. Like his father, Greg serves his version on rolls from F&S Maranto Inc., a Baltimore bakery that opened in 1914, around the same time his grandparents came to Little Italy from actual Italy.They’re a perfect fit. The impossibly soft sub roll somehow sops up the tangy Parmesan cheese-sprinkled tomato sauce without turning to mush.

Greg recently rolled out breakfast and serves items like pizza and brisket sandwiches. He wants to serve, as his dad did, whatever his customers crave. In a neighborhood that’s undeniably changing, he takes pleasure in preserving a slice of the past.

“People are concerned that the neighborhood is going to be more commercialized and it’s going to disappear,” he says.

He shakes his head. “On this corner, it ain’t.”