Who doesn’t love to play tourist in their hometown? On a recent Saturday I did just that, embarking on a North End Market Tour with “Boston Food Tours”. As I awkwardly approached a seemingly large group of people to ask if this was the right place to meet I was reminded how teeny tiny the streets and restaurants are in the North End. How in the world was a group this big going to squeeze into these tiny places for the next three hours? Turns out, I needn’t have worried: the guides at Boston Food Tours are pros and the shops are fully prepared – quite the feat!
One of the most beautiful things about Boston is the difference between the city’s “neighborhoods”. Each with its own personality and focus: some finance oriented, some made for young families, some devoted to higher education (and serving that young group of eager leaners), some shopping-centric, and many that involve fantastic food. But the always-energetic North End, Boston’s Little Italy if you will, is a personal favorite; with its heart-warming food, served by some of the friendliest people around. I’m quite versed in where to eat in my favorite Boston nook, but I was looking forward to finally learning where to shop in this hamlet on the “Market” tour. I was going to learn about all the hidden shopping gems, about what’s great to buy and about how to buy it (there are a few rules).
Most of us associate the North End with being almost strictly Italian, although in fact this area of the city has undergone several transformations over the past 300 years, driven by the different ethnic groups that haved called it home. As the British, Irish, Russian and Portuguese have cycled through this neighborhood it has gone through times of plenty and times of want, and has supplied the city of Boston with the traditions and food associated with the each group’s native country. The Italians were the last group to come onto the island (I learned on the tour that, in fact, the North End used to be an island!), drawn by their an interest in fishing. Though now only about 30% of the residents are Italian, the neighborhood retains much of the character and vibrancy that the most recent influx of immigrants brought to the area.
Our food odyssey began at Maria’s Pastry. This place has been around since 1982 and offers some of the most authentic Italian treats in the North End. I fell in love with their Amaretti (aka Italian Macaroons). Be sure not pass up the marzipan. They are still painstakingly hand decorated in the back of the bakery, and taste as amazing as they look.
Next, we visited the famous DePasquale’s Homemade Pasta Shop. Here, we learned about “everyday” boxed pasta, made on machines with Teflon coating which gives its smooth texture; “artisanal” pasta made on machines with copper coating to give it a rougher texture, perfect for holding sauce; and of course homemade pasta that cooks up in just 2-3 minutes and may be better saved for special occasions because of its price! DePasquale’s also creates some of the best charcuterie in the North End, and has an entire wall full of amazing olive oils and vinegars.
Then on to Polcari’s Coffee, which is way more than just a coffee shop. Its more like a dry goods store, offering tons of dried herbs, dried beans, rice, candied and dried fruit, rare oils and, of course, coffee. I won’t say much to try and sell Polcari’s aside from: just walk in and smell the place, you’ll start salivating immediately!
Alba Produce, our next stop, is the North End’s oldest greengrocer and offers produce it would be tough to find elsewhere. Our tour guide tipped us off about store etiquette: as in Europe, you shouldn’t walk in and start squeezing and possibly bruising the fruits and veggies. Instead, tell them what you’re looking for, and they’ll give you the best they have. Alba has no signage, so seekers should look for the green awning on Parameter Street.
Monica’s Mercato is truly a treat for any shopper. We were greeted by one of Monica’s sons, who own the shop, as well as two North End restaurants. He was energetic and clearly proud of the businesses and the legacy begun by his mother, which was inspiring and refreshing to see. The shop offers some of the best cheeses in town, floor to ceiling shelves stocked with a myriad of authentic Italian ingredients as well as prepared foods from their sister restaurants. We sampled a little bit of cheese with honey, which I then bought a large chunk of – it was just too good to pass up!
We ended the tour at The Wine Bottega, where you will find an impressive selection of wines at all price points and will also learn about (and be able to purchase) the apéritifs and digestifs associated with the multi-hour Italian dining experience. I walked out with a bottle of Vin Santo, an Italian desert wine, which I had never heard of before and now need to replenish.
A day spent learning more about the North End’s colorful history and adding a few more uniquely Boston markets to my list was a day well spent. Thank-you and Ciao, Boston Food Tours!