Panorama: The Official Guide to Boston

Vol. 51 No. 1 May 28 — June 10, 2001

…a community far different than any other in Boston. Narrow alleys and streets are filled with constant banter and laughter of residents and visitors. Scents of garlic, sausages and espresso drift through the air from the restaurants and cafes surrounding you. As Bostons oldest neighborhood, it is home to such historical sights as the Old North Church, the Paul Revere House and the Old North Meeting House. Hanover Street, one of Bostons oldest public roads, allows visitors a taste of the past while offering access to new galleries, shops and restaurants. For an authentic and literal taste of the North End, experience the North End Market Tour.

All I ever really needed to know I learned on the North End Market Tour. Honestly. Reserve an afternoon in the charming North End with one of Bostons greatest epicurean resources, Michele Topor. She whisks you away to both clandestine and conspicuous culinary landmarks where you are transformed into a connoisseur of the finest Italian fare.

Topor divulges secrets on where to find authentic ingredients, buy them and how to prepare them (I brought a hand-held tape recorder and suggest you do the same). For three delicious hours youll gallop among the gourmets of Bostons Italian enclave and become privy to hundreds of tantalizing tidbits, recipes for success and gentle warnings and suggestions. Shell leave your head spinning and your belly full, for Topor is a culinary dynamo; a certified chef and instructor; a living, breathing, (and definitely) eating gastronomic sage. Her mantra? “Fat is flavor.” Her passion? Italy and its cuisine.

And shell make it yours. Whether whetting your appetite or renewing your ardor for cooking, she takes you from wine and aperitivo to dessert and digestivo and every course in between. She begins with a concentrated history of the North End one of our countrys oldest neighborhoods and details its origins as a haven for immigrants of myriad ethnic groups in the mid-1800s. She then describes how the areas restaurant scene has evolved. With more than 100 eateries in the neighborhood, Topor explains the difference between traditional Italian and Italian-American cuisine and how Italian chefs have adapted their cooking to the American palate.

“It may take half a day to complete your shopping,” she says with a laugh, yet she isnt jesting. “And its not just shopping, its socializing.” Of this there is little doubt, as proprietors and passerby wave in greeting, and guests from previous tours on a mission to stock their kitchens stop us in our tracks. She is amiable and unpretentious yet cheese grater sharp. She exposes marketing tactics (ask about balsamic vinegar) and truths, and separates fact from factoids like yolks from an egg. She has a contagious zest for life and a love for the neighborhood in which she lives and works. “I am very luckybecause I always have access to fresh ingredients. To me that translates into quick and easy cooking.”

She has been known to leave fresh fava beans from her favorite green grocer and a paring knife out for her guests, or pair dry ricotta with honey or fresh peaches for an impromptu dessert. She offers simple yet special cooking tips such as spreading olive paste (Crespis wins waves) on swordfish or chicken; praises foods with medicinal qualities such as ginger for nausea; and offers advice for storing everything from parmigiano reggiano (the king of cheeses) to porcini mushrooms.

Inhale the scent of fresh, traditional pastries made to honor an Italian church holiday in a family pastry shop or discover a bakery with a brick oven that holds 500 loaves of bread. Be forewarned: on our visit an apron-clad woman doused in flour, shouted, “Were making biscotti. Anyone want to work?”

Journey on, however, into the freshest fish markets and butcher shops. Topor suggests trusting in her butcher who displays nothing in his store yet delivers choice meats like lamb and rabbit as well as veal cut for scallopine or osso bucco. Aromatic salumeria (Italian delis) proffer prosciutto, salami, coffee and imported cheeses as well as pasta, olive oil and vinegars. In one hidden shop youll find yourself surrounded with confections and baking ingredients galore from European truffles to filberts, sun-dried tomatoes and citron. Learn how to complement your meal (before, during and after) with suitable and extraordinary wines and liquers whether with a celebratory, sparkling white wine; grappa made from fresh peaches from southern Italy; or sambuca infused with espresso.

Michel Topor utters the phrase, “Be good to yourself,” more than once. Allow her to show you how.