Midwest Airlines Magazine: Cityscape – Boston

September-October 2006

Cityscape – Boston

With more than 375 years of history behind it, the Cradle of Liberty is a feast for the senses

By Molly Rose Teuke

IF THEY’RE NOT FILLING YOUR CANNOLI WHILE YOU WATCH, FIND ANOTHER PASTRY SHOP. I LEARN THIS lesson in Boston’s North End. Outside on Cross Street, rain is drenching passersby. Inside Maria’s Pastry Shop, my sister Mary and I shake off raindrops, dampening sawdust on the floor, and inhale mingled aromas of butter, citron, toasted almonds and cinnamon from still-warm pastries and Italian cookies. Everything is tempting—sfogliatelle, a filled pastry shaped like a large, flaky clam shell, pasticiotti, a bite-size version of Maria’s ricotta pie, and quaresimali, Italian almond biscotti.

But I choose cannoli. I’ve never been fond of this tube-shaped dough, fried and filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, but that’s because I’ve never had it fresh. With a flurry of Italian between Maria and her mother, Filomena, a tray of warm cannoli shells appears on the counter. Maria deftly fills them while we watch. With the first bite, I’m smitten.

The North End—Boston’s original neighborhood—is small, just one-third of a square mile, and tour guide Michele Topor covers it all on a culinary adventure she calls her North End Market Tour. Walking the narrow lanes with Topor is a tourist’s immersion into the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of one of America’s most remarkable Italian neighbor-hoods. From Maria’s, we dodge raindrops to Dairy Fresh Candies and then on to Polcari’s Coffee, its wooden floor fragrant with the aroma of roasted coffee beans, licorice root, citrus-flavored teas and a hundred varieties of herbs and spices. Around the corner at Salumeria Italiana, the mellow aroma of meats and cheeses is tantalizing alongside the imported Italian pastas, oils and other essential ingredients.

The tour over, Mary and I head back to our room, cutting across Blackstone Street through the noisy, chaotic Haymarket, where shoppers jostle one another as fruit, vegetable and fish vendors shout invitations to buy. Mary points out a bronze banana peel underfoot, part of the whimsical 1976 art installation Asaroton.

Back at the Charles Street Inn in Beacon Hill, someone has laid an instant log in the fireplace of our fourth-floor Victorian room. We uncork a bottle of red wine and settle in to warm up over a game of cribbage.

We return to the North End for dinner at Mare, a new [2005] restaurant featuring organic coastal Italian cuisine. Choosing the exquisite five-course tasting menu with paired wines allows us a three-hour culinary tour with stops at grilled langoustine, BBQ octopus, tagliere di pesce, risotto di mare, sea bass al formo and more.

Partly cloudy skies provide good light for the next day’s adventure: a PhotoWalks tour of Beacon Hill. We meet our guide, Saba Alhadi, at the Boston Common, and under her tutelage we record, on film, some of the details that distinguish this one-square-mile neighborhood. In the historically upper-class South Slope section, we focus in on elegant door-knockers, boot scrapers and window boxes on gracious homes. In the working-class North Slope, where Boston’s abolitionist movement took root, we snap brick patterns, window casements and narrow street scenes.

In the area known as the Flat of the Hill, the energy of Charles Street contrasts with the quiet residential streets. Lined with antique stores, galleries, restaurants, food shops, dry cleaners and more, Charles Street is the commercial heart of Beacon Hill. I snap a picture of reflections in a window with “U.S. Post Office” lettered in gold above a flower box.
From there, it’s on to the trendy South End with Maryglenn Vincens of custom tour company Boston Your Way. This is the largest Victorian row-house district in the country. At not much more than a square mile of mixed residential and commercial properties, the South End calls for leisurely strolling. Vincens guides us to what becomes my favorite lane in all of Boston: Public Alley 705, a narrow walkway through Berkeley Commu-nity Garden, part of the South End/Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust. On either side of the gravel lane lies a colorful patchwork of gardens, each one only a few yards square. We nod hello to a gardener from adjacent Chinatown who, intent on her work, seems more like an artisan creating a seasonal work of art.

After a light lunch on Tremont Street, known citywide as “Restaurant Row,” we poke into a little shop characteristic of South End retail, where local merchants have held their own. Here, at London Lace, traditional Scottish lace panels hang gracefully on wooden frames, antique linens and textiles lay artfully piled on tables, dressers and chair backs, and handmade soaps and an eclectic assortment of small treasures add up to an Old World sensibility.

A stroll up Shawmut takes us past a storefront I can’t resist: the Syrian Grocery Importing Co. Opened in the 1940s, it was bought in 1967 by Maurice Mansour, whose three sons, Monty, Ramon and Joe, run it today. The savory scent of fresh-cut fennel wafts past us, giving way to a tangy aroma as we make our way past tubs of seven varieties of olives. Adding complexity are rich threads of scent from jars of bulk spices. The shelves are a variegation of colors and labels in an array of languages—Greek, Arabic, French, Italian, even German. There are more than a dozen kinds of capers, two dozen kinds of rice and pasta, five dozen varieties of oils, vinegars and sauces, and one-of-a-kind ethnic specialties, such as ma’amoul—Lebanese stuffed cookies. As we check out a giant brass mortar and pestle and a brass spice grinder, Joe scoops up a sample of olives for us to try. I buy a tin of sweet Hungarian paprika, a ceramic olive tray and a packet of dried apricots.

The Syrian Grocery experience only expands my hunger for the eclectic delights of Boston. Though I am satisfied for the moment, leaving is bittersweet.