Yankee Magazine: Michele Topor’s North End

March 2000

by Carol Connare

On this walking tour, you get an insider’s guide to Italian food — and a taste of an old Boston neighborhood.

When the blond lady fainted in the back of Dairy Fresh Candies, our tour guide, Michele Topor, was in the midst of shocking us with tales of what’s really in lower grades of olive oil. (“Chemicals. It’s all solvents and chemicals. You’ve got to buy extra-virgin.”) When someone cried, “Catch her!” we all looked to see the falling fainting woman’s companions grab her and plunk her onto a box of bonbons.

Michele sprang to action, and before you could say “cannoli,” she had the manager of the candy shop on the phone to 911. The dozen of us on the tour looked on as the woman’s friends revived her with a glass of water, and Topor called off the medics. The manager stepped from behind the counter, unwrapped a fat, shiny chocolate, and handed it to the woman.

That’s when a woman next to me whispered, “Gawd, what some people will do for a free piece of chocolate.” We all got a piece of chocolate (without having to faint for it) before Topor shooed us back out into the street and cantered off to the next stop.

On Michele Topor’s culinary walking tour of Boston’s North End, there are tastes all along the way. Topor (Polish by birth, Italian by design, and chef by trade) leads you to her favorite places to buy meats, pasta, produce, pastry — and shows you where to buy liquors, wines, candies, confections, and even cookware. Now, weeks after the tour, the tastes along the way stand out in my memory most.

At Maria’s Pastry Shop it was the sfogliatelle, or clamshell pastry. Folds and folds of flaky phyllo dough are layered and filled with sweet cheese lightly flavored with cinnamon and orange. At Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street it was the mouthwatering tang of the good balsamic vinegar (the best fetches over $100 a bottle) that we tried. It was nothing like the supermarket stuff, which we learned is simply glorified red-wine vinegar. At this same store we sampled meats and cheeses and learned what to look for in boxed pasta (real Italians serve only fresh pasta for special meals). The barely salty prosciutto literally melted in my mouth, as Topor’s mantra, “Fat is flavor,” rang in my ears.

Outside a greengrocer’s, I sampled my first-ever fava bean. In the back of the fine wine and liquor store Cirace, we tipped small vials of limoncella, a cordial of lemon and botanicals. The bittersweet lemony liquid instantly warmed my insides — it was like swallowing sunshine.

While you learn the rudiments of shopping the North End, you also get a taste of what may be Boston’s oldest surviving neighborhood. Italian men sit on stoops and wave at Topor; hollered hellos bounce off the narrow streets and brick buildings; the smells of garlic and spices drift over the sidewalks from the area’s restaurants. Topor points out the real traditional Italian restaurants versus the Italian-American eateries, as she describes the history of the neighborhood and how it’s changing with the influx of young urban professionals.

The afternoon tour ends at 5 p.m., leaving just enough time to circle back to a few shops (Topor asks that you wait until after the group disperses to make purchases) and try one of her recommendations for dinner. Depending on whether or not there’s a fainter on your tour, Topor can include about ten shops on a three-hour jaunt through her neighborhood. Take notes, listen carefully, and come with questions — she’s a fount of knowledge, a fleet-footed teacher who skillfully leads you to the conclusion that Italians are a culinarily superior race. In fact, the only question that remained for me was what to do with all that inferior olive oil lurking in my cupboards at home.

ESSENTIALS: Market Tour and Tastes. L’Arte di Cucinare, 6 Charter St., Boston. Tours Wed. and Sat. 10-1 and 2-5 p.m.; $35 per person, reservations required. 617-523-6032 (www.micheletopor.com)