April 2006 – Adventure Close to Home
North End Tours Serve an Authentic Taste of the Old World
By Megan R. Weeden
Walk along the narrow, cobbled streets of the North End and catch a whiff of the sweet aroma that wafts through the alleyways and you would swear you’ve suddenly been transported back to the old country.
For decades, immigrants from Europe have found a home here. First the Irish, then the Russian Jews, but since the early 1900’s, it has been predominantly Italian. Ninety-percent of the residents within this one and a half-mile neighborhood were Italian around 1920.
“While the North End is only 40-percent Italian today, there is still a very strong influence felt here,” says Paul Dennis, a guide for North End Market Tours.
Market Tours is the creation of North End resident . Trained as a chef in Italy and the United States, Ms. Topor, who grew up Polish, has been offering tours of the North End since 1995.
“When I moved into this neighborhood in 1970, I became enamored with the culture here,” Ms.Topor said. “I started teaching culinary classes and would bring in these specialty ingredients that you can only find in the North End. I started taking my classes into this neighborhood and that’s how I started my tours.”
As Mr. Dennis takes us from bakery to candy shop, from the butcher to the spice shot, he feeds us anecdotes about the people and the places around us.
We dive into shops, such as Maria’s Pastry, where we hear how Maria makes each specialty product from memory, and we are treated to a taste of sfogliatelle – a flaky pastry shell filled with cheese and citron fruit – chocolate biscotti, marzipan, and other delicacies.
Nest stop: Dairy Fresh Candies. This tiny store is filled wall-to-wall with sweet savory treats such as dried fruits, roasted nuts, and imported hard candies. The sugary aroma is sure to make you salivate. We tested the mudslide fudge on the way out…absolutely heavenly.
We stand at the intersection of Salem and Parmenter Streets, and Mr. Dennis points to two different meat markets: Sulmona Meat Market, which is owned by Domenico Susi, and Abruzzese Meat Market, which is owned by Frank Susi.
These two Susis are not related, we learn. They grew up in the same province of Italy, but met here in the North End.
“They are best of friends- a testament of the loyalty this village has,” Mr. Dennis says. “Each has their own clientele and there’s no competition between them. If you visit one Susi for their selection of lamb and walk over to the other Susi for his pork liver, they’ll talk about you. You stick with one butcher here and don’t go between the two.”
It’s Saturday afternoon and Polcari’s Coffee is bustling with patrons lined up to choose from the large assortment of international coffee, spices, legumes, grains, and rice. We cram into the back corner of this quaint, very old-world market to learn about the medicinal effects of licorice root and discover what a soft cinnamon stick smells like.
Inside Alba Produce, a genuine greengrocer, we chat with owner Bruce Alba about the little old ladies that frequent his shop and munch on prickly pear and crisp fennel.
“You don’t touch the produce here,” Mr. Dennis warns. “You point, and Alba will pick it out for you.”
At Salumeria Italiana, a true Italian grocery store that specializes in cured meats, the group has a bite of the best prosciutto I have ever tasted, and Mr. Dennis gives us shopping, storing, and serving advice. It is here you will find some of the best olive oil, balsamic vinegar, artisan pasta, and cheese.
During the three-hour tour, you meet the shopkeepers, peer behind the scenes, and witness animated Italian conversations of the retired men sitting on a stoop socializing.
“That’s Italy,” Ms. Topor says. “Having your own greengrocer, your little pastry shop, your salumeria (grocery store). It’s not just about shopping daily- it’s about socializing. I introduce my tours to a new experience.”