Food Network: Best of the Best of 2004

by Jill Cordes & Marc Silverstein

In Paul Revere’s backyard, tour guide extraordinaire, Michele Topor, revolutionizes the way you look at one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods. Only it has nothing to do with the Redcoats. Red sauce? Now that’s another story.

Boston’s North End is one of the country’s oldest, most authentic Italian neighborhoods. It’s filled with Old World-style bakeries, greengrocers, butchers, and, of course, restaurants like Mamma Maria (see below). Several times a week, Topor leads visitors on a three-and-a-half-hour tour, during which she shares her expertise on why such a small area—less than 1/3 of a square mile—is so vibrant.

The Puritans were actually the first “immigrants” to live in the North End. Paul Revere became a resident in 1770. Over time, the neighborhood became a haven for a succession of different ethnic groups, first Irish, then Russian Jews, Portuguese, and finally Italians. Topor says it was 90 percent Italian in the 1920s. Although the numbers have declined, the heritage remains on display. Topor is proud to show it off and wants others to grow comfortable with the ways and customs.

Her tour offers a long list of stops, and plenty of samples along the way. At Maria’s Pastry Shop, sfogliatelle may be hard to pronounce, but one bite makes it clear it’s a breakfast pastry. At Alba Produce, Topor explains how dandelions are a familiar ingredient in spring salads. Salumeria Italiana brings a passionate discourse on the difference between authentic balsamic vinegar and weak imitations. And at Y. [sic] Cirace and Son, one of the top Italian wine shops in the United States, there’s a toast over Limoncello, a lemon liqueur.

One thing you won’t find is a large supermarket. Topor says the custom here—as in Italy—is to go from store to store on a daily basis, socializing at every stop. Topor speaks the language as if she were from Italy. She’s visited there more times than she can count. So it’s somewhat fascinating to discover she’s 100 percent Polish. But her soul is Italian, she says, and that’s what counts. Her connection tot he culture started when she moved tot he neighborhood 30 years ago. She’s been sharing it ever since, serving up a tasty course in history.