by Josh B. Wardrop
“We all hate the Big Dig,” says Michele Topor, a 32-year resident of the North End. “Everything’s covered in dirt and dust, it’s taken away so much parking, and it’s made access to the neighborhood much more difficult.”
Topor may not be able to widen arteries or extend sidewalks, but making the North End more accessible has become her life’s work.
She’s proprietor of North End Market Tours — a three-and-a-half hour walking tour of Boston’s renowned center of Italian restaurants, bakeries and groceries. Three days a week, for the last five years, Topor has been combining a lifetime of culinary expertise with an insider’s perspective of the North End to educate food-lovers about where to shop, what to buy, and where to dine.
“The North End is really a village — it’s truly like a little slice of Europe,” says Topor, a former nurse who’s earned degrees from prestigious culinary schools like La Scuola Di Cucina Italiana in Bologna. “There are no skyscrapers, it’s full of small family-owned businesses that are mostly closed on Sundays. It’s something I don’t think you can find much in America anymore.
“The goal is to help people get a feel of the neighborhood, to show them where to buy the best products, and encourage them to feel comfortable coming to these stores and asking questions,” she adds. “The North End is full of very friendly, warm and welcoming people, and I want to show that to as many people as I can.”
A North End Market Tour begins at Martignetti’s Liquors on Cross Street, where participants get a short lecture on table wines, and a more involved discussion from Topor about the history of the North End, which dates back to 1630. By 1920, the neighborhood was 90 percent Italian.”
Leaving Martignett’s, Topor leads her small tour group (the size never exceeds 13 or 14 guests) down the street to Maria’s Pastry Shop. Located on Cross Street, on a seemingly empty corner by the heart of the Big Dig, most people, Topor says, walk right by it without even noticing it. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” she says. It’s probably the best pastry shop in the North End.”
Inside, tour guests listen (and salivate) as Topor stops at practically every cookie, pastry and sweet inside the glass cases and offers a detailed explanation of what it is and how it is made. At the end, guests are rewarded with an opportunity to taste chocolate biscotti, marzipan and other delicacies.
Heading over to Salem Street, Topor leads her group to places like Dairy Fresh Candies, where she imparts fascinating information about the various health benefits and cooking uses for dried fruits like citron, or nuts like pistachios (“throw them in your meatloaf,” Topor suggests, “or chop them up finely and use them as breadcrumbs for your chicken or veal”), and exposes the truth behind myths about olive oil and balsamic vinegar. (By the end of the tour, you&Mac185;ll be able to tell your friends you know what a $185 bottle of balsamic vinegar looks like.)
After a quick pop into Giuffre and a walk by the Abruzzese Meat Market, tour-takers should inhale deeply when they enter Polcari’s Coffee on Salem Street. The 70-year old market is home to barrel after barrel of dried herbs and spices, dry rices, grains, beans and pasta, in addition to — of course — coffee.
Crossing over to Hanover Street, the “main drag” of the North End, is where Topor often gets questions about which restaurants she recommends – a question she is a tad reluctant to answer. “What it comes down to, really, is what people are used to,” says Topor, making sure that people realize the distinction between the “Italian” restaurants in the North End and the “Italian-American” restaurants. “People are shocked when I tell them that if you went into an Italian restaurant in Italy that the chefs have never heard of chicken or veal parmigiana. It’s a purely American invention — chefs have to come over here to learn how to make that.”
Topor does have good things to say about a number of places along Hanover Street, including Prezza, Cantina Italiana, and Artu. “It all depends on what you’re in the mood for,” she shrugs.
The penultimate stop on the tour is Salumeria Italiana, the store that Topor calls “the best Italian grocery in America, as far as I’m concerned.” Relatively small, the store stocks fresh and dry pasta, canned tomatoes, and is known for its outstanding meats and cheeses — several of which are sampled by the group (the prosciutto is to die for).
The tour ends, as it began, among wine bottles. This time, the group is in Cirace’s, a liquor and wine store that’s been handed down through three generations of North End natives. There, Topor lectures the group on before- and after-dinner drinks like grappa, Sambuca (“served with three coffee beans on top — to symbolize the Trinity,” says Topor), Tuaca, Strega (“the witch”) and the newest phenomenon, a drink called limoncello that tastes like homemade, fresh-squeezed lemonade mixed with vodka.
By the end of the tour — which is such a pleasant and easy walk that one scarcely notices almost four hours have gone by — North End neophytes can walk away with a solid primer in how to shop for the perfect Italian dinner. And, for Topor, it’s a chance to pass on her expertise on a subject she dearly loves.
“I’ve had Italian mother-in-laws taking the tour with their daughter-in-laws, as a way of trying to explain why the husbands don’t understand what kind of food the wife is serving,” says Topor. “I’ve had tourists from Italy listen to the tours at various stops, and then they come over and tell the tours that I do know what I’m talking about. It’s always something new and exciting.”
The North End Market Tours run year-round on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and on Fridays at 3 p.m. Tours are approximately three-and-a-half hours long. Cost is $39 per person. Call 617-523-6032 for reservations, or visit www.micheletopor.com for more information.