Boston Globe: Interview with Michele Topor

Interview by John Koch, Globe Staff

MOVING TO THE NORTH END made Michele Topor, 52, what she is: a devotee of Italian culture and food, a cooking teacher, and a guide who leads culinary tours in her historic neighborhood.

Do you have to be Italian to do what you do?

I’m 100 percent Polish, but I grew up eating wonderful, fresh, good food. My dad was a butcher, and my mom is a wonderful chef — Polish, though. This was in Three Rivers, a Polish, French Canadian, and very Catholicvillage [in Palmer]. When I moved into this neighborhood, in ’71, I had never even eaten spaghetti. Tomatoes were for salad or stewing as a side dish. I’m sure I drove people crazy asking what is this, how do I cook it, how do you eat it?

Was it love at first bite?

It was. I found an apartment through a butcher. Of course, I had to meet the whole family. At the time, I was a nurse in whites, working at Children’s Hospital. Bambini — I was golden. I have a huge extended family here; you don’t get that in many communities. I don’t have any siblings [or children], but I feel like I have siblings, and friends’ kids come help me garden on the roof. I’ve tried to move out; can’t do it.

How authentically Italian is the North End?

It’s a style. It’s healthy food, sharing, communicating. The evening’s not just to fill up your tummy and nourish yourself; it’s more than that. When you sit down to an Italian meal and there are so many courses, it turns into wonderful conversation. Most of us don’t take the time to enjoy these pleasures. There’s a lot of specialty shopping. That’s Italy — having your own greengrocer, your little pastry shop, your salumeria [grocery store]. It’s knowing the merchants — and it’s not just shoppingdaily, it’s socializing. A lot of the foods are imported. Some are domestic, but in the style of having been made in Italy.

What you say about balsamic vinegar — it’s, well, shocking!

It’s an American marketing phenomenon and really a fraud: 95 percent of what you see has nothing to do with balsamic vinegar. Nothing. The true vinegar has been made for thousands of years in the towns of Modena and Reggio-Emilia. They boil down the juice from local grapes, put it in wooden kegs to age, and every couple of years, it’s moved to a different wood. It might go from oak to cherry to chestnut to juniper to pear and must be aged a minimum of 12 years. They don’t call it a vinegar; they call it a seasoning.

Is the real thing expensive?

For a small, 5-ounce bottle, it’s $50, $60, maybe $100. It’s used primarily — a couple of drops — to flavor a piece of cheese, on a cutlet, on ice cream, on strawberries. Never on salad. Men carry little vials intheir breast pocket — they go out to eat, take it out, put one or two drops on whatever they’re eating. It’s very unique. It’s still part of a woman’s dowry. What we buy is a totally different product.

Isn’t what we eat often an American version of Italian cuisine?

Yes. The North End was a ghetto in the 19th century — not just Italian. There were Russian and Polish Jews, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish. The population rose to 560,000; in the early 1900s, it was second to Calcutta for population per square foot. The Italians ate cucina povera, cooking of the poor. The meat that they ate was what we consider discarded by the butcher: the tripe, liver, kidneys. Fish, the same thing: calamari, octopus, smelt. They opened little restaurants, to feed their own. Americans began to discover these restaurants but ate what was safe to them, which was spaghetti, a straw bottle of Chianti; and the Italians realized they could make some money, so they adapted their cuisine to the American palate. Eggplant parmigiano was a typicalItalian favorite; they turned that into veal and chicken parmigiano. There’s no such thing in Italy.

Are there other dishes we think of as Italian that aren’t?

The red sauce for pasta is very Italian; it’s consumed in central and southern Italy almost every day. But it’s a very simple sauce. The red sauce that Americans know is often too thick, too sweet, and too much. In Italy, it barely coats the pasta. And you never would see meatballson the dish with the spaghetti in Italy. Meatballs would be cooking in the sauce to flavor it, and then they pull them out and serve them on the side.

Fresh pasta seems so “in.” Italians must eat it all the time.

Not at all. It’s more a celebratory pasta — for Sunday, perhaps. It’s heavier, it’s made with eggs, and it’s more expensive and harder to digest. Most Italians prefer a dry pasta that comes in a box or a bag, but a good pasta made with hard wheat.

What’s the future of the North End?

It’s diluted — we’ve got about 40 percent Italian now. But it’s still a working-class, vibrant neighborhood, and there are young people coming in who are looking for that community neighborhood feeling. It’s changing.

How Italian have you become?

In the sense of food and perhaps lifestyle, almost as Italian as you can be, living in the States. I get by in Italian very well. My grammar’s not very good, but with a glass of wine, my tongue loosens up and I don’t care. Italways strikes me when I come back from Italy: It’s so different there; if only we could be like that. Here, we’re still caught up with the sense of materialism. There, the most important thing is family, friends — people.