The North End, Boston’s first neighborhood, is the place to experience the Italian lifestyle. Once the home of American revolutionaries, the community maintains an old world look. Plants hang from the balconies of five-storey, red brick, walk-up condominiums. There is no such thing as a supermarket in this neighborhood. You can spend a fun day discovering authentic Italian food shops.
Just a short block beyond a sign that points to Paul Revere’s House, leave the busy tourist area behind by ducking down a passageway between buildings. Step into the Bricco Salumeria and Pasta Shop. It is small but loaded with aromas and rich colors– of cured meats, cheeses, tomatoes, marinated and cured olives, oils, and vinegars. Lunch hour customers order freshly made sandwiches. Staff serves from behind hanging sausages and trays of stuffed red peppers and antipasto. Extra virgin olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and pastas imported from Italy line the shop’s shelves. Balls of fresh mozzarella sit in a large bowl of brine, ready to be scooped into a container and taken home. Sample an olive oil and it will bring a cough to the back of your throat just as a true olive oil should. The balsamic vinegars are as smooth as wine.
Across the alleyway and down a staircase, Bricco Panetteria, a one room, white tiled, flour-dusted old-world bakery produces artisan breads. Ciabatta. Olive. Raisin. Miche. Fresh-out-of-the-oven loaves of Prosciutto and Parmesan, the original bacon bread, disappear quickly.
The cannoli in Maria’s Pastry Shop on Cross Street was voted the best in Boston by Boston Magazine. If you attempt to enter the kitchen, either out of curiosity or to praise the baker after tasting her cannoli, you will be stopped short. Likely by a shout. No one is allowed. Maria’s mother worked in the bakery shop for 42 years; Maria has owned it for 32. Her biscotti are crunchy with a hint of cinnamon, her macaroons are colorful and chewy, and her marzipan will melt in your mouth. Maria is so up-front with her customers that she displays the few cookies not made in her ovens in their original manufacturers’ boxes so there is no chance of mistaking them for hers.
Polcari’s Coffee, on the corner of Salem and Parmenter, is not a Starbucks but the aroma is Starbucks mingled with licorice, lemon, and lavender. It is the place for roasted coffee beans, wild oregano, dried herbs and spices, roasted chick peas, varieties of flour, and hard to find items like Fior Di Sicilia pure extract, pomegranate molasses, and grey salt. If you visit in the summer months, granita di limone or lemon slush is a big seller.
At nearby Alba Produce, a green grocer, you might have to wait for a customer to come out before you go in because space is tight. Cardboard boxes overflow with bananas, peppers, eggplant, basil, and arugula. The produce is un-priced. No one but the vendor is allowed to touch the vegetables. If you do not like what he picks for you, point to the item you prefer. Prickly pear, figs, and fresh fennel are thirst-quenching on a hot Boston afternoon.
Traditionally, Italians enjoy specific alcoholic drinks at different times of the day. Aperitivo in the mid-afternoon when visiting with friends, still and sparkling wines to accompany meals, and digestivo after meals to relax, to digest. For over 100 years Cirace’s Purveyors of Fine Wine and Spirits has been satisfying those traditions. Stroll the aisles and talk to the staff and you will discover that each bottle and label tells a story.
Most Italian food found in North American grocery stores is far from authentic so a visit to Boston’s Little Italy will return you to the true flavors, textures, aromas, and character of the Mediterranean lifestyle.