Boston Globe: A Food Lover’s Guide to the North End

by Alison Arnett, Globe Staff

We’re standing on Cross Street on the edge of the North End, with throngs of shoppers, tourists and street people coursing around us. It’s a bright, chilly Saturday in April, and fava beans, a sure sign of spring to Italians, are in the markets.

Michele Topor, who is leading this food tour of the neighborhood, is showing us how to peel off the tough outer layer from the beans, remove the thin skin covering them and pop the pods, which taste a little like fresh pea pods, into our mouths.

The greengrocer smiles, we smile, the fava beans are delicious and it does, indeed, feel like spring. And the moment’s a perfect illustration of the joy that the North End, host to a series of immigrants — Irish, Eastern European Jewish and finally Italians in this century — still harbors in its food.

For many in the Boston area, the North End means restaurants, in the bountiful, reasonable, red-sauce tradition. But it’s a neighborhood where good food istaken seriously and the purveyors — from specialty grocers to cheese shops to butcher shops to bakers — have seen their clientele change from mostly neighborhood people to mostly outsiders.

Shopping along these narrow streets lined with gray and sometimes run-down buildings has an entirely different feeling from the cool modernity of a supermarket. It can be a little daunting, even a little exhausting, as you contemplate pasta shapes while an older Italian woman, all in black, argues vehemently with the shopkeeper in a language you can’t understand about the freshness of salami. And yet it’s lots of fun. The products and the service can be outstanding, and there are plenty of tales later for the family dinner table.

The adventure begins at J. Pace & Son on Cross Street. This market, called a salumeria in Italian, is a large, noisy store offering 25 types of olive oil, many types of dried pasta, vinegars, Arborio rice for risotto, nuts, dried beans of various types, canned tomatoes, packaged biscotti and many other imported and domestic items. The front of the shop is taken up with large display cases ofcured meats — salamis, sausages and prosciutto and with cheeses, the Italian specialties provolone, Parmigiano Reggiano and gorgonzola taking center stage.From the ceiling hang packages of dried mushrooms and, at Easter time, gaily wrapped Perugina chocolate eggs, each containing a small present.

Joseph Pace, a large, friendly man (“Who would shop in my store if I were thin?” he asks) has been in business for 26 years, beginning on Salem Street, then moving to Cross. This is a family business: His father and his son both work with him. He says he’s seen drastic changes in the neighborhood since the 1950s, when his family came from Abruzzi, but his customers’ insistence on quality has remained constant.

The store has about 7,500 customers a week, “and out of that, 20 maybe ask about prices,” he says. They shop there because they want these products, many of which can be used in all the Mediterranean cuisines.

Easter is probably the peak period for the whole neighborhood, and Pace talks fondly of “Easter pizza,” or pizza gana, a two-crusted pie filled with the finest cold cuts, cheeses and eggs.

“This time of year, the old ladies come in with their Social Security checks,” he says, and splurge on the ingredients for pizza ganas. They’re making the pies fortheir sons and close relatives, and because the meats and cheeses are expensive — the pizzas call for prosciutto and salami — the women take special care and an unusually long time to choose just the right combinations.

In a store that sells 25 varieties of olive oil and 300 to 400 pounds of Parmesan a week to retail customers, Pace’s own favorite food in the shop is a simple one –bruschetta, toasted or grilled bread rubbed with good olive oil. His brand of oil changes regularly: “Personally, I use whatever’s broken,” he says.

The family-business aspect is strong in the neighborhood; many shops have several generations of one family working together. Michele Topor, a nurse at Children’s Hospital who also leads tours for both Boston and Brookline adult education classes and teaches Italian cooking, says that “heightened interest in Italian food is making it possible for many of the food establishments to continue.” In the 20 years she has lived in the North End, she’s watched the neighborhood change from predominantly Italian-American to a mixture of ethnicities, with many young professionals having bought condominiums there.

Several of the shopkeepers mentioned that as much as 85 percent of their clientele comes from outside the neighborhood, many of them Italian-Americans who have migrated from the North End to the suburbs and come back for weekly or monthly shopping.

Frank Susi, whose father, Domenico Susi, owns Sulmona Meat Market on Parmenter Street, says that some North End customers shop the way Bostonians drive: They call in their orders to the shop, then drive down the narrow street in front of the store, honk and wait for the butcher to run out with the order. Meanwhile, the drivers behind the “shopper” are all honking.

Sulmona’s is meticulously clean and simple, like a typical butcher shop of the early 20th century. One wall is lined with wooden chairs, where customers wait while their meat is cut to order. A request for a rabbit, for example, means that the customer is met with the sight of the whole bunny, fur and all, being skinned before one’s eyes. “Would you like the head?” asks the butcher matter-of-factly.

But the rabbit is excellent, and the butchers do all the cutting on the premises — never working with prefrozen sides of beef and pork. Although the butcher shopspecializes in veal, lamb and homemade sausages, baby goat, or kid, is also popular this time of year. It’s more expensive because the animal is smaller and less readily available. “When we skin them we have to leave a few hairs on the tail,” Frank Susi says, “so that the people will know it’s the real thing.”

Frank Susi says that custom butchering “is kind of a dying business,” but many particular cooks won’t shop any other way, so Sulmona has a loyal clientele. “People want to see what they’re eating,” he says, and to know that the butchers deal directly with producers of lamb, kid, rabbit and other meats and hand-pick the products.

The most ubiquitous product in the North End is bread, much of it smooth- crusted, with a soft interior and fairly bland taste. At Boschetto on Salem Street, where the brick oven is over 100 years old, sisters-in-law Louise Bruno and Elda Fedrico say that their brick-oven-style bread has been very successful and usually sells out before noon. Regular customers often buy the same thing every day, merely requesting the “new” bread. (This bread has actually been made for several years, and a similar type, shipped in from New Jersey, is sold in several other shops.) These round or long loaves are immense — about 3 feet — with a rough-textured crust and a slightly developed taste.

On her food tours of the neighborhood, Topor enthusiastically points out the mozzarella and ricotta made in the basement of Purity Cheese on Endicott Street. The cheese, she says, “has a wonderful dairy-fresh flavor,” much different from the drier packaged varieties, and she recommends it for pizzas and pastadishes.

Another store with unusual specialty items ingredients for the dessert table — is Dairy Fresh Candies on Salem Street, two narrow rooms with shelves mounded high with candies, nuts, dried fruits and other products. Its citron peel, orange peel and other dried fruit, used in sweet breads, are a far cry from the hard, rubbery variety in the supermarket. And the shop carries both the Chinese and Mediterranean variety of pine nuts, or pignoli, and an array of other nuts. For example, if your recipe calls for sliced, slivered, whole or blanched almonds, they’re all here.

Topor says the store’s goods “have a huge turnover. That means fresh and cheap.” She points out the two types of sesame seeds, with and without hulls (“healthier with the hulls on,” she advises).

Shoppers need breaks, though, and the North End has shops galore offering espresso, cappuccino, ices and Italian nonalcoholic soft drinks. Some of these shops seem like dark, old-fashioned men’s clubs; some are brighter andglitzier, to attract tourists.

A tiny new cafe, on Prince Street, called Artu, is a sophisticated take on the old-style cafe. Donato Frattaroli, Artu’s owner, says he patterned his café after an Italian rostericcia, where light food, especially roasted meats, as well as drinks are sold. For the influx of singles in the North End, Artu’s is a place to stop by for a light meal or for a spit-roasted chicken to go.

“I don’t want this to be a full restaurant,” says Frattaroli, who with his brother owns Lucia Ristorante on Hanover Street. “People can come in and I can get to know them.” The food here is simple and not too expensive, with specials such as calamari on Fridays, tripe on Saturdays. “I opened this place for me and my wife to have fun.”

North End locals, says Topor, always frequent the same cafe and often have a greengrocer and bakery that they patronize exclusively. When asked her favorite food shop in the North End, she is quick to answer Salumeria Italiania on Richmond Street.

Yet another family business, Salumeria Italiania is owned by Ermenio Martignetti and his son, Guy. This market is small and quiet, with shelves of olive oil and vinegars and barrels of olives. The key ingredient here is service, says Topor. Cured meats, cheeses and olive oils are carefully chosen, and Topor values the help the shopkeepers offer if she has an Italian recipe that calls for ingredients she doesn’t know.

Ermenio Martignetti, 70, is true to his reputation when he makes suggestions to a customer. He says to eat the peeled raw fava beans with soft pecorino table cheese and assures her that the quality of finer-textured Arborio rice will be worth the extra $1 it costs. “You taste it and come back and tell me,” he says confidently.

He was right.