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Just Five Ingredients: Roman-inspired Cuisine in Mount Vernon

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“I want to create a restaurant group in Baltimore that’s doing it a little bit differently,” Chef Owner Brendon Hudson shares as we sit in the intimate dining room of his first restaurant, Allora on Charles Street. “I think that sometimes with the other groups, they are more business-focused, and it shows in the restaurants,” he says.

The compact dining room of Allora snuggly seats twenty and leaves a thin aisle to maneuver from the door to the low countertop. There, a glass case overflows with pastries. Behind that, a bustling crew attends the gas range filled with boiling pots. If you crane your neck, you can see an earnest prep kitchen the size of a closet a few feet behind the register and the dishwasher scrubbing delicate plates and demitasse cups.

The word “allora” in Italian is a flowing filler word, much like “umm” or “well” in English or “bueno” or “vale” in Spanish. In linguistics, these words or sounds allow speakers to take pause and think while letting their listener know there is still more to come. The name “Allora” was affectionately adopted after a visit to Rome where it was overheard abundantly. The restaurant Allora and its purveyors echo the sentiment of “more to come.”

 

“It was a yogurt shop, a cooking school, and then a Mediterranean take-out, and my favorite is that in the 80’s, it was a shoe repair store,” co-owner David Monteagudo shares as he lists off every previous iteration of the small storefront.

“The address for this building is my birthday, which is 10-05,” David reveals. “It was the one space we found that had what we needed, and it’s also my birthday, of course, I was like, let’s do that!”

“And we loved the windows,” Brendon adds as he points to the two large windows that flood the dining room with natural light.

Allora’s menu was inspired after the duo spent time in Rome. Roman cuisine is full of hearty pastas and braised dishes, one of their favorites is Amatriciana, a simple sauce with tomatoes, rendered pork fat, onions, and garlic. Guanciale, Italian cured pork jowl, structures the dish. The salted and spiced cured pork cheeks release herbaceous clove and hints of anise and fennel through each bite while tomatoes brighten and create distance between the umami flavors of the braise. Delicately topped in a dusting of imported 24-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano, the dish finishes with a hint of citrus and lingering notes of salt, fat, and earth.

The menu changes with the seasons and offers variations on a theme. On our visit, their sourdough toasts celebrated early summer with white peaches, slightly sweetened ricotta, and thinly sliced prosciutto. Blistered shishito peppers are a tasty appetizer and come smothered in a summery lemon aioli finished with crushed pistachios.

If you’re searching for a staple Roman dish, try the Spaghetti Carbonara, the BEC (bacon, egg, cheese) of Rome. Guanciale, eggs, pecorino cheese, and black pepper coat and cling heavily to bronze die cut noodles. The thicker than usual spaghetti is pushed through the die that creates abrasions for the sauce to settle into. It’s rich and salty, cheesy and peppery, and a soul warming dish.

 

Allora has been open for three years. Since opening in 2021, the duo known as Lilihana Group has opened three other restaurants and operates a catering business. “It’s chaos from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” Brendon says of the work day.

David chuckles in wordless agreement. They’ve been together for eight years since meeting in culinary school in 2015. The conversation flows through moments of tension and levity, as with any couple with so much shared history.

“We got our practice in, early in our relationship.” David shares how they handle the intimacy of their relationship and business partnership. “We were living in a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego with three drag queens,” David says, laughing. “We were in this tiny bedroom together for a year, and that’s when we got through all of those things.”

I nod in complete understanding of “those things.”

“Opening businesses was kind of the same. It was after the pandemic, too, so we had two rounds of having to be together every minute of every single day,” David adds.

Allora’s decor is timeless yet trendy, bedizened with art deco inspired rattan chairs and a bold colored focal point. “It’s all from the Internet,” David says. “You could find this on Amazon, but it’s rare for someone to look for an orange velvet chair,” he shares as we appreciate the armchair at the crest of the dining room.

“These chairs were actually from Target.” Brendon says. “I [used] to hope that no one ever found out they were, but now I don’t care.” Some chairs and tables are from Ikea, which is common for first-time restaurants opening on a budget.

“We did everything ourselves,” David answers when I ask if they painted. “Brendon and I were the ones who lifted these 500lb appliances over the counter.” Brendon winces at the memory.

“It’s still just us,” Brendon says when I ask about investors. Nothing about the ambitious duo feels contrived.

 

Brendon and David moved back to Baltimore after a formative year in San Diego to be closer to Brendon’s family. They started Liliahna Luxury Catering, a bespoke and custom catering company, shortly after their return.

“We were very different in the catering world because we basically said we’ll do whatever you want,” David explains.

“We would even take family recipes that we would recreate,” Brendon elaborates.

“For those family recipes, it was always a really old aunt or grandma who can’t make it anymore, but [the family] still has the recipe,” David says.

Their unique and empathic approach to catering and outstanding food and service was recognized in 2020 when Brendon was named Top Chef of 2020 in Baltimore Magazine’s Readers’ Poll.

Chef Brendon and David have been decorated by Baltimore Magazine several times since 2020, including Best New Cafe in 2021 for Allora and both Allora and Vellagia’s are listed among the 2023 Top 50 Restaurants in Baltimore.

“James Beard is next,” Brendon says.

In 2022, Chef Brendon opened a consanguineous revival of his great grandfather’s Italian restaurant, Vellaggia’s. The original restaurant opened in 1937. It was owned and operated by Brendon’s family until 2006 when the building and the restaurant were sold to a developer for $1.8 million dollars.

“As time passed and they got more and more popular, they kept buying the next building over and the next building over and turned it into the largest restaurant space in Little Italy, which eventually turned into Vellaggia’s,” he shares.

The original Vellaggia’s, open for 69 years, was a long-standing institution in the small four-block neighborhood of Baltimore’s Little Italy. Since the family sold it almost twenty years ago, the building has changed hands and gone through its own revival. Today, Brendon and David’s Vellaggia’s operates out of a partition in Cross Street Market in Federal Hill—across the harbor from the original Little Italy location.

Baltimore City has favored food markets and mixed-use real estate for decades. This urban renewal plan divides the city up and sells it to savvy developers who understand that multi-use spaces mean no single point of failure. Stalls in high traffic food markets like R House, Cross Street Market, Whitehall Mill, Lexington Market, and the Hollins Market can offer lower barriers and greater access for budding entrepreneurs. They provide a built in audience, shared common space and amenities, and alleviate the financial burden of new construction and the never ending wait for buildout permits.

While the price of rent is comparable to single-occupancy storefronts, the stall model encourages new ideas to come to fruition rapidly. And of those, David has a few. “They [ideas] just come to me while I’m falling asleep. As I’m about to drift away, all these images start flashing in my head,” he explains.

“He has the idea, and I bring it to life,” Brendon chimes in.

“Some of the images are so strong that I can remember them the next day. I write them down, and suddenly we have this totally fleshed out idea with menu items, ideas where we can open in the city,” David shares.

 

But with a population of just over half a million, how many food markets can we sustain? What is our inheritance as business owners in a city that offers a stall over a piece of real estate?

Chef Brendon returned to his roots in Baltimore, an idiom that infers a deep connection to a place. Our next generation may only return to their rhizomes as the modern city design creates a less rooted network with multiple entry and exit points.

When it comes to the food, Chef Brendon executes a streamlined philosophy, “Simple as possible,” he says, “I’m not a tweezer chef,” he says, laughing. Allora’s menu features Roman-style dishes. It was the Cacio e Pepe that first drew me to the establishment—with three ingredients, pasta, Parmigiano cheese, and black pepper. Any error in preparation or balance will ruin it immediately.

“Roman, and Italian food in general, is super simple,” Brendon says. “All the dishes have five ingredients or less on the plate.”

Allora’s Cacio e Pepe is simple and perfect. The noodles have an al dente bite that teases with resistance, you’re meant to chew, not slurp. The melted aged Parmigiano is silk on the tongue. It’s creamy, nutty, fragrant, and tart—think green apple in the finish. Enter the black pepper. Fireworks in the mouth! The flavor builds slowly as the wave of piperine opens up the senses—robust, piney, and herbaceous. The heat of the black pepper seeps and then fades right before it’s too spicy.

“It gets to you the way I would want to eat it. Hot. Flavored right. Cooked right.” Chef Brendon says, “I’d rather the food hit the table hot than pretty.”

The duo will say goodbye to their first little restaurant spot later this year as they plan to move Allora into a much bigger space up the street. The new location will occupy the once-gay nightclub, Grand Central, that closed in 2020 and expand their footprint to 2500 square feet. They plan to host after-hour events in an effort to revive the queer nightlife of the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

“By the end of 2025, we’ll have very exciting things happening,” Brendon says enigmatically.

“Wait, what’s happening in 2025?!” David interjects. “So dramatic… oh wait, I remember.” He says and quiets.

  • Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted and article was written before lawsuits and accusations of unpaid wages against the restaurant owners were made public.

 

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