Michele Topor knows the North End of Boston better than most. She’s lived here for more than forty years and now she shares her culinary secrets, her friends and the food of America’s oldest Italian community.
Boston’s North End is one of the few places left that still tells the story of the American Dream – the story of immigration. In the mid-1800’s more than 50,000 people lived in under a square mile. The Italians were the last wave of immigration and many stayed.
Michele Topor’s Boston Food Tours have been operating since 1994. A former chef, her knowledge of Italian food is second to none. The North End is still home and it shows. Down narrow alleyways and one-way cobble stone streets, Michele introduces you to the personalities that make the North End ‘autentico’. She’s known many of them since they were kids.
The North End of Boston has over a hundred coffee shops, restaurants, bars and eateries in a 1/3 square mile. Many former residents still come back weekly to buy real food – not pale, supermarket imitations.
Michele hands out maps of Italy’s varying regions to let you know that “…there’s no such thing as Italian food” Fresh is best isn’t just a slogan around here it’s how people shop at the greengrocer, salumerias and pasticcerias.
Bricco Panetteria is an old world bakery in a very modern space. Using only natural ingredients, Alberto and his team bake all day long with a starter from Naples. The bread is simple and delicious and don’t get me started about the choux pastries. Next door you can taste the sweetest prosciutto and delicious house marinated olives at Bricco Salumeria.
Maria’s Pastry Shop is a traditional Sicilian pasticceria where the cannoli are only filled when you buy. Never. Ever. Before. The cannoli is crisp, the ricotta filling heavenly light and the banter between Maria and Michele constant.
The community come to Maria’s for their traditional religious holiday specialties from the decorative Agnello Pasquale (Easter lamb) to the Ossi Dei Morti (Bones of the Dead) for All Souls Day.
The only thing new in Polcari’s is the wooden floor. Since 1932 locals and those who have moved away come for dried goods, coffee and conversation. Bobby Eustace once worked here on weekends with his friends. His friends went off to college and Bobby stayed in the old neighbourhood. Ralph Polcari mentored Bobby and he eventually took over the business.
Polcari’s is as old school as it gets. Filled to the rafters with over 150 herbs and spices, tea, nuts, beans, candy and of course, coffee. There’s everything a baker could ever need from ammonium carbonate, Lievito, pure vanilla and authentic Italian Nutella. There are seeds, liquorice root and Puntini; tiny chewy candies in distinctive polka dot wrappers, once used as change in Italian stores.
There’s no sign at Alba Produce. You know what’s going on here. Perhaps one of the last greengrocers in all of Boston, Albie ensures the produce is the freshest daily and the olives and sun-dried tomatoes homemade.
You might notice the occasional knife and fork, cleaver or even scissors and comb embedded in the footpath. That’s how you identified a restaurant or barber in the old days.
Open the door at Monica’s Mercato and Salumeria and immediately the warm aromas of pizza and home made tomato passata envelop you. There’s imported and local cheese and every variety of salami and cured meat. The porchetta and meatballs are homemade and there’s everything truffle from butter to potato chips.
With so much good food there must be wine. The now third generation V. Cirace & Son has been in the same location since 1906. They proudly display the first liquor license granted after Prohibition. Jeff and Lisa exclusively import many fine apertivi and digestives including the finest Limoncello, blood orange cream and pistachio cream liqueurs. The grappa selection is surely the best outside of Italy.
And just when you think you couldn’t eat another bite there is Salumeria Italiana. Deep veins of aromatic black truffle run through the Sardinian semi hard, raw sheep and goat’s milk cheese, Moliterno al Tartufo. Gaetano Martignetti might be a little camera shy but he is another irrepressible part of the North End.
Michele’s tours are quite unlike any other food tour you might ever take. She not only tells the neighbourhood’s stories and introduces you to the people that made them; she also shares her love of all things Italian. And the best part is she takes you along for the ride.
Liz Bond was hosted by Boston Food Tours and Discover New England