How hot was it when the group from Better After 50 and I went on a walking tour of Bostonʼs North End? It was so hot you could bake a pizza on the sidewalk (ba-dumbum). The extreme temperatures however, did not deter us as we followed our guide, Michele, up and down the streets of the “oldest residential neighborhood in the United States.” While the North End is also an area rich with Revolutionary War history,–the Old North Church is there–we were on a reconnaissance mission that had to do solely with food; Italian food. It helped our efforts greatly that Michelle lives in the area and knows its ins and outs like nobodyʼs business. She exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of Italy and all things Italian, and getting her localʼs perspective on things was priceless.
Michele tried (unsuccessfully) to keep our chattering to a minimum as she regaled us with tales of a bygone era when immigrants from far-off places like Ireland, Poland, Germany, Portugal, and Spain settled in the little enclave near the water. Ultimately it was the Italians who stayed and firmly established themselves in the area. For the first time, residents from Genoa, Milan, and Naples found themselves living steps away from each other. Deeply rooted to their regional traditions, each group worked hard to maintain its autonomy, and thus many types of Italian cuisine can be found in the myriad restaurants that dot the streets. And itʼs not merely restaurants for which this waterfront community, just one square mile, is known. The variety of bakeries, wine stores, pizzerias, and salumeria (delis) located there pack a punch that even Rocky Balboa would be in awe of.
“Pasta water should taste like the sea.” – Michele Topor
Our first stop was a little gem of a place: Mariaʼs Pastry Shop on Cross Street. Away from the two other more-well-known-and-overcrowded-but-not-as-good unnamed shops from around the corner, Mariaʼs may not be on everyoneʼs radar–but it should be. Pastry cases lining the walls are filled with an array of cookies: amaretti, cannoli shells waiting to be filled with rich marscapone cream, biscotti studded with nuts and jewel-like candied fruits, and toto, chocolate spice cookies that I would sell my soul for, to name a few. Also there to tempt us were delicate lady fingers, handmade marzipan, and chocolate torrone. Itʼs a great (and quiet) place where you can sit and enjoy handmade dessert without throngs of people getting in your way.
“Eggplants that have a dimple on the bottom contain fewer seeds.” Michele Topor
The huge chalkboards covering the walls of De Pasqualeʼs Pasta Shoppe on Cross Street, listing the varieties of pasta that are available, should clue you in to the fact that this place is serious about their pasta. In addition to the homemade fresh, including ravioli and gnocchi, they also carry imported Italian artisanal pastas–the kind that are thick and chewy, and take you back to that little trattoria in Rome that you loved so much. The shop is also a deli, and has a wonderful selection of meats, cheeses, rustic breads, olives, peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes: everything you need for a fantastic al fresco picnic on a summer evening in Boston. Two of the things I loved most about De Pasqualeʼs were the two stainless steel kegs by the front door–one containing Calabrian olive oil and the other, balsamic vinegar. You can bring your own containers, open the spigots, and fill ʻem up. Our mini lesson on the nuances between good olive oil and extraordinary olive oil, and the different grades of balsamic vinegar ended with a tasting.
“Cutting the fat from prosciutto is like removing the bubbles from champagne.” – Michele Topor
Step into Polcariʼs and you will be bathed with the aroma of spices that have permeated the wood shelves and floors since 1932. Situated on Salem Street, this grocery is a veritable bazaar filled with those spices, in addition to nuts, legumes, grains, oils, vinegars, coffee, and the biggest jar of Nutella this side of Italy. Itʼs a bit of what little is left of the old world charm of the area.
“The best licorice comes from Calabria” – Michele Topor
V.Cirace & Son, Inc. is a beautiful wine and spirits shop on North Street. There Michelle explained for us the apertivi, liquori, and digestivi–the before, during, and after dinner libations that are part of a traditional Italian meal. A little sampling of cold Limoncello hit the spot, and I made a note to put the Blood Orange Crema liqueur on my “to buy” list for the next time I visit.
Our group, Better After 50, is a womanʼs group, and what more perfect place to dine, have a glass of wine, and chat than in a wonderful restaurant owned by a woman? Artu, on Prince Street, is owned by Nancy Pelczar, a powerhouse restaurateur (owner of two restaurants), and it was our last stop, a perfect coda. As we took a welcomed respite from the heat and crowds on the North End, we dined on bruschetta topped with slivers of summer squash, crisp arancini (rice balls), and perfectly grilled skewers of rosemary scented chicken. Listening to Nancy talk about her family, the trials and tribulations (and psychology) of running a business–management issues, employee relations–was very enlightening–and empowering. The entire day, in fact, was empowering for me. And encouraging. I am close to the one-year mark of my relocation to Boston, and while itʼs been a wild and wonderful adventure, I have not met very many women with whom I could bond and share life stories. In just one afternoon I met ten such women, thanks to Better After 50. The day was a success on many levels. I look forward to returning to the North End armed with the tricks of the trade that were provided by Michele. And perhaps Iʼll bring a friend!
“Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.” – Bertrand Russell