Ninety-two restaurants. One-third of a square mile. Most people familiar with Boston at all know that the tiny neighborhood of the North End is a Mecca of culinary indulgence and overwhelmingly Italian.
Michele Topor, proprietor of Food Tours of Boston and true Italian culture fanatic, relates during her North End Market Tour a suprising tidbit that most folks don’t realize. It is that even in the North End, where the generation of Italian-born Americans is not so far removed, and you can routinely hear more Italian spoken in the street and cafes than English, the strong Italian flavor is actually saturated with American influence.
In some cases, pure necessity is the culprit; ingredients that are abundant in Italy were more difficult to come by in America and the climate alters flavor and texture. Another factor: the market. Italian immigrants quickly realized that their cooking appealed to the masses of Boston residents and that an escape from poverty and labor was possible, but they also realized that the American palette demanded more – more sugar, more sauce, more garlic.
The most distinct difference between Italian cuisine and Italian-American cuisine is the preponderance of those three ingredients in the latter. Inspired by Michele’s tour, I built what I believe represents an authentic Italian experience in the North End. Of course, this is just one adaptation – take the tour and build your own perfect day!
Although the North End has quite a few notable, even famous, pastry shops, Italians very rarely eat sweets for breakfast. It seems that the authentic Italian diet – indeed, their entire approach to life – really revolves around enjoying food while still feeling well. Everything from what they eat, to when they eat, to the order in which they eat and drink certain ingredients, is all geared toward achieving effective, comfortable digestion. To that end, Italians have learned that sugar in the morning leads to a headache or energy crash in early afternoon and that a bit of fruit and protein is much more conducive to a productive and satisfying morning.
Hence, let us begin with some fruit and cheese. One thing about the North End that remains true to not only its Italian roots, but to its early immigrant roots as well: no supermarkets. To shop for even a single meal, you need to visit at least three, and more likely, four or five different specialty markets – the grocer, the butcher, the baker, the salumeria (deli), and the wine shop.
For some truly authentic Italian cheese, visit Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. Cheese in Italy is regional, like most food. Most folks know, for instance, that Parmesan cheese originated in Parma. Another interesting fact some might not know is that, because different animals are indigenous to different regions of Italy, the milk from which cheese is made within those regions reflects this topography rather than just taste or culinary creativity.
Cheese in northern Italy is made from cows’ milk. Cheese in the south is made from sheep’s milk and cheese made from buffalo’s milk can only be found in the center regions. There exist thousands of varieties, so you should be able to find something that suits your morning palette – most of them literally melt on your tongue. For the fruit, go see "Albie." Alba Produce is a long, narrow market piled practically from floor to ceiling with the freshest fruits and veggies in season, from the common grape tomatoes and apples to the more exotic dandelion greens, borlotti beans, and fresh chicory. Keep in mind, though: Albie only accepts cash.
Mid-morning or early-afternoon, you might be interested in some socializing. According to Topor, Italians are both devoted and gossipy. This means that they patronize a single café – and only that café – and if for some reason, someone is spotted in a café other than his own, tongues begin to wag! This is also true in the North End. Historically, café association has been tied to church and saint affiliation and so goes the tradition here. Of course, out-of-towners are welcome in any establishment, but if you plan to spend any length of time here, you would be wise to keep your business loyal to one place, where you can have an espresso with a dipping cookie such as a biscotti or zuccherati – not too much; you don’t want to spoil your appetite for lunch! – and play checkers or read the paper and chat with the locals, many of whom still speak mostly Italian.
The North End is home to a bevy of historical landmarks, most famously, Paul Revere’s home, the Old North Church, and the beginning of the Freedom Trail. It also has quite a few waterfront parks and at under a square mile, is really manageable to walk – something the Italians do a lot of. Why? It aids digestion, of course!
Lunch. The big meal of the day. This is where Italians go all out because – what else? – they have all day to digest. Unfortunately, this is one area where the North End has diverted from Italian tradition for the sake of profitability. Of the nearly 100 restaurants in the North End, very few are open for lunch. Of course, you can find pizza and subs on just about any block, but for the more traditional mid-day meal, try Ristorante Limoncello. The food is terrific and staff, service, and ambiance are as close as you can get to the real thing in America.
After lunch, a rest is ideal – perhaps in one of the aforementioned parks. A stroll is also a good idea. Wandering through the numerous old cemeteries – many of which have headstones dating back to the 1600’s – is awe-inspiring.
If Italians are going to have something sweet at all, late afternoon is the time of day for it; just a little pick-me up for energy between meals. There are some more commercially well-know pastry shops in the North End, but Maria’s Pastry Shop on Cross Street is by far the most authentic (translation: less sugar). Every item is handmade by Maria or labeled otherwise, with just the perfect amount of almond paste or real vanilla or honey to stave off that late-afternoon sweet tooth without a full-blown sugar rush.
Looking for something a little more indulgent? Gelateria has 50 different flavors of gelato, ranging from grapefruit to green apple to caramel, all handmade daily. The décor is less than traditional, but the gelato is really authentic.
In early evening, do a little shopping; the North End has a surprising number of boutiques and souvenir shops. Or, you could venture across the recently opened and newly beautified Greenway above the central artery and over to Faneuil Hall and Haymarket, where you can wander open street market on weekends or browse the huge selection of shops.
Italian night life varies dramatically from region to region. The rock stars of summer in the North End are the saints. That’s right; the saints. Throughout summer, the various saints of the Catholic Church are celebrated during the neighborhood’s famous street fairs. The patron saint for each given festival is carried through the streets by the church elders, as residents and visitors alike pay homage, literally, by stuffing cash into the ribbons secured to the statue. The festivals run from sundown until well into the wee hours, with live music, food, drink, and souvenir stands.
If you’re visiting the North End during summer, do yourself a favor – skip dinner in favor of sampling a variety of the local fare. Then, don’t forget to grab an apertivi and walk – it’s good for the digestion!
What & Where:
Michele Topor’s Boston North End Market Tours (Six Charter Street; 617-523-6032; www.micheletopor.com)
Salumeria Italiana (151 Richmond St; 617-523-8743)
Alba Produce (18 Parmenter St)
Ristorante Limoncello (190 North St; 617-523-4480)
Maria’s Pastry Shop (46 Cross St; 617-523-1196)
Gelateria (272 Hanover St; 617-720-4243)