Where Boston: The Right Ingredients

May 2005

The Right Ingredients

The culinary culture of Boston’s Italian-American neighborhood

By Sandra Giardi

“Any chef will tell you, if you start with good ingredients, the outcome will be fabulous”, says , the mind behind the deliciously insightful North End Market Tours, culinary adventures that transform kitchen novices into gastronomes faster than you can say “scamorze”. “That’s the most important thing. What you put into a dish.” The same might be said of Boston’s North End district, the city’s “Little Italy”. It’s the ingredients, the make-up of this extraordinary section of town that causes it to shine.

For one thing, the North End seems to be on a different time continuum than the rest of the city. The pace is markedly slower. And though the North End has recently been reunited with the rest of Boston due to the replacement of the Central Artery of Interstate 93, there is a palpable old-world charm that is conjured in this neighborhood and this neighborhood alone. It is as unmistakable as the aroma of garlic and olive oil that streams from the front doors of any number of restaurants, or the animated, native parlance spoken by many of the older store owners. The fact that locals are unhurried in this anachronistic enclave means that there is time not only for pleasantries, but for the lost art of conversation. And there is also, happily, plenty of time to savor one’s food.

The North End is now known as a restaurant haven boasting some 87 eateries, most of which proffer Italian-American fare that runs the gamut from take-out pizzerias to the three-story charmer Mamma Maria, with is Emeril-lauded cuisine. But it wasn’t always this way. The confluence of Italian-American, an ethnicity that today makes up the population majority at about 40%, was not the dominant group until the early 20th century, after the Irish, Jewish, and other immigrant communities that once called the area home had dispersed. The North End, with its waterfront locale, was a melting pot of nationalities to be sure, but it is the Italian-American heritage that remains strong. The flurry of restaurants we see today has only been in existence for the last 15 years or so, with some notable exceptions like Mother Anna’s, a fourth generation Hanover Street eatery proudly serving for over 60 years; Joe Tecce’s on North Washington Street, founded in 1948; and Cantina Italiana, which opened its door in 1931. Mike’s Pastry, the ever popular Hanover Street gathering place – that fills their handmade cannolis by the thousands for a busy weekend day- is nearing 50 years in business, while Bova’s Bakery, the 24-hour Salem Street store right on the Freedom Trail and the maker of sinful Tuscan round, may take the cake as a fourth generation bakery in existence for 85 years.

While the sands of time do seem to run slower here, the neighborhood has felt the effects of change; condos have been built, rents have soared, and young professionals and empty nesters have infiltrated. The summertime North End Feasts, neighborhood festivals honoring Roman Catholic patron saints that are rife with food, lights and processionals, today number 12 and are hosted by six societies rather than the original 50, but are still wonderfully popular. And, while the North End used to house far more retailers and mom-and-pop shops, there are still plenty of enticing specialty markets to discover and nary a supermarket chain in sight – latter was kept at bay thanks to a deafening public outcry.

Topor, a resident for nearly 35 years and an authority on the food-centric neighborhood, describes shopping in the North End as “an intimate experience.” “You have to talk to somebody when you go shopping,” she says, and it’s clear she relishes that contact. The award-winning chef wouldn’t have it any other way, and shows guests on her North End Market Tours the treasures the quarter has to offer within its pastry shops, salumeria, green grocers (she loves Alba Produce), fish market, coffee shops, butchers and other retailers like Dairy Fresh Candies – which boasts everything from dried porcinis to nonpareils- and Polcari’s – the 73 year-old spice shop that’s “like breathing in old-world Italy.” Topor urges visitors to venture beyond Hanover Street, and insists that shopping in the North End is “like visiting extended family.” I’d have to agree. After visiting Monica’s Mercato on Salem Street on more than one occasion to peruse its fresh pastas, prepared foods (like meatballs prepared without bread crumbs and eggplant parmigiana), artisanal breads, Sicilian pizza and homemade marinara, I was treated similarly by Monica Mendoze, who also owns Monica’s Restaurant and Monica’s Trattoria with her children. Mendoza seconds Topor’s sentiments, and has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years, “I know everybody. I’m very happy here. Everyone looks out for one another.”

The notion of family and tradition is championed in the North End, perhaps above all else. It’s an honor to work in the family business, as with Bova’s Bakery where owner Anthony Bova wears his pride as neatly as his apron, or sons and daughters the chefs as in the case of Joe Tecce’s, Mother Anna’s and Monica’s. Many owners honor the love as well as the recipes of family members; for example, Villa Francesca owner Guglielmo Ranauro named his street-side eatery for his mother Francesca. A give-and-take exists with the generations, at times, especially with older restaurants that have to compete with newer, flashier models. John Caparella, owner of Mother Anna’s, knows its time to refurbish, yet hates the idea. He will also tell you that the Neapolitan menu of his grandmother (the restaurants name sake) is largely unchanged, though his sons- the chefs- constantly request more freedom. He only allows a few new dished at a time, since they’re such good cooks, and recalls relenting and adding veal Roberto to the menu. “My grandmother would never mix veal and shrimp,” he laughs.

That said, when asked about recent cooking trends within the neighborhood, Topor divulges that there is happy news with regard to authenticity. She identifies the largest difference as a shift within eateries from a more “Italian-American to an Italian way of cooking.” She explains, “[Chefs] can really recreated the dishes of the various regions because of the ingredients that are now available,” and points to Via Valverde as a shining example, as well as Artu and Antico Forno. The marketplace has changed, Italy is marketing more goods, and fabulous salumeria (Topor dubs Salumeria Italiana the “best Italian grocery store in the country”) are now making items like the finest prosciutto, just pressed olive oil, cheeses, caperberries, and Italian cream accessible. She asserts that you’ll also find that many chefs are using these ingredients to the American palate.

How do all of these eateries survive in such close proximity? Topor attributes the success to the wide popularity of Mediterranean food and cooking, and adds that “everyone has something a little different to offer.” Marguerite DiMino Buonopane – writer of the hugely successful North End Italian Cookbook- knows firsthand just how much the North End’s cuisine is loved, as her cookbook, which first came out in 1974 “when the restaurants were just starting to blossom,” is now in its fifth edition. Her latest version is a compilation of “the old and new,” she offers, with her own family recipes represented as well as dished from a few favorite restaurants like Bricco, Maurizio, Cantina Italiana and Fiore.

While it may be hard to pinpoint exactly why the cuisine of the North End is so adored, I suspect it has as much to do with the tradition, tempo and kinship of the locale as it does its tantalizing fare. It’s like Michel Topor says about excellent ingredients, “if you’ve got something good, leave it alone.”