date published: August 24, 2009

The North End
Our guide to Boston’s beloved Italian neighborhood
by Josh B. Wardrop

As the oldest neighborhood in one of the nation’s oldest cities (residential development began in earnest in the early 1700s), Boston’s North End carries with it quite a bit of history—a key attraction for the throngs of visitors that fill up the neighborhood all year round. The Freedom Trail (refer to freedom trail listings)—the Hub’s popular attraction comprised of the most notable architectural landmarks from Boston’s Colonial days—makes three stops in the North End. The Paul Revere House (where the famous patriot lived from 1770–1800), the Old North Church (where the renowned “one if by land, two if by sea” lanterns hung the night of Revere’s Midnight Ride) and Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (the second cemetery built in Boston) all draw crowds of history buffs, while some of the North End’s less explored, but no less fascinating, historical landmarks and stories are revealed to those who take local historian Guild Nichols’ North End Secret Tours (refer to sightseeing listing). Nichols shows visitors the birthplace of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, takes them to the Mariners’ House (still active to this day as a boarding house for former and current-day sailors) and tells the story of the quirky and delightful Skinny House (the narrowest house in Boston, just 10.4 feet wide at its widest point).

After a stretch of 60 years during which the North End was primarily Irish (1840–1870) and then Jewish (1870–1900), Italian immigrants began flowing into the neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. From that point onward, the neighborhood has remained predominantly Italian, with that culture informing every part of daily life in the North End—most noticeably, to the casual visitor, from a culinary perspective.

Virtually all of the restaurants in the North End—and there are close to 100 of them in the borough’s less than two-square-mile radius—are Italian. While that would seem to make choosing between them difficult, there is actually a stunning amount of diversity among these eateries: man, after all, cannot live on red sauce alone.

Taranta (210 Hanover St., 617-720-0052) melds traditional Italian flavors with the Peruvian food that Chef Jose Duarte grew up with; Mare (135 Richmond St., 617-723-MARE) uses only all-natural and organic ingredients to craft a healthy Italian menu focusing on seafood dishes; Grezzo (69 Prince St., 857-362-7288) is perhaps the most radical concept this distinctly Old World neighborhood has seen yet—a vegan, raw food take on Italian cuisine. These new variations on the genre flourish alongside such longstanding traditionalist venues as Mother Anna’s (221 Hanover St., 617-523-8496) and La Famiglia Giorgio (112 Salem St., 617-367-6711) and modern upscale Italian eateries like Tresca (refer to restaurant listing), Artu (refer to restaurant listing), Lucca (refer to restaurant listing) and restaurateur Nick Varano’s popular duo of Strega (379 Hanover St., 617-523-8481) and Nico (417 Hanover St., 617-742-0404).

Much of the nighttime activity that takes place within the North End is associated with the neighborhood’s dining scene, but there are still plenty of ways to entertain yourself here even if you couldn’t possibly eat another bite.

Those in need of a laugh after a long, hard day have the North End’s resident masters of mirth and merriment, Improv Asylum (refer to comedy listing), to put smiles on their faces. These creative comedians offer hilarious, interactive and often made-up-on-the-spot shows that are never the same twice, and always guaranteed to have you rolling in the aisles.

If you’re the type who prefers to make your own laughs with friends, then there’s no better way to do that than in a local watering hole over a cocktail or two. The Living Room (refer to nightlife listing) is as comfortable a gathering place as its name suggests, offering up plush loveseats to relax in while enjoying trivia nights or watching a game on the big screen TVs, as well as an outdoor patio overlooking the harbor. For another great view, Ristorante Fiore (250 Hanover St., 617-371-1176) boasts—in addition to its delightful fare—the neighborhood’s only rooftop patio, a perfect spot to unwind with a glass of wine and a rare vantage point for enjoying Boston. Or take a trip even further back in the North End’s history, to its 19th-century days as an Irish neighborhood at Goody Glover’s (50 Salem St., 617-367-6444), a Celtic pub that specializes in well-poured pints and good old-fashioned craic (festive conversation and celebration).

Since 2003, smoking has been banned in most Boston nightspots, but those who love cigars have a few places where they can seek asylum. One of them—Stanza dei Sigari (refer to restaurant listing)—is in the North End, and it’s a popular evening haunt for those who get stoked for stogies. Guests can smoke fine cigars in comfort, sip from a full liquor menu and even try an exotic hookah pipe.

Whichever option you choose for your night in the North End, one thing’s likely: by the time last call rolls around, you’ll probably be hungry again. That’s why your final stop should be Bova’s Bakery (134 Salem St., 617-523-5601). The North End’s only 24-hour bakery, Bova is hopping all night long as it turns out calzones and delicious pastries well into the wee hours.

Espresso (or cappuccino, if you prefer) is the fuel that keeps the North End going. And North Enders don’t sip their caffeinated beverages at Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, either. The neighborhood is packed with authentic and charming cafes serving the delicious steamy brown elixirs (as well as pastries, sandwiches, liqueurs and more), including Caffe Vittoria and Caffe Pompei (refer to restaurant listings), Caffe Paradiso (253 Hanover St., 617-742-1768) and Caffe dello Sport (308 Hanover St., 617-523-5063).

Pizza: Pie lovers will think they’ve found heaven in the North End, with delicious pizza places to be found around every corner. A few of the tastiest are the legendary Regina Pizza (refer to restaurant listing), a favorite since 1926; Antico Forno (refer to restaurant listing), home to amazing and delectable brick-oven creations; Galleria Umberto (189 Hanover St., 617-227-5709), a popular lunch take-out spot to which you’d best arrive early, because when they run out of slices, the doors close for the day; and Ernesto’s Pizza (69 Salem St., 617-523-1373), which serves up diverse slices and pies to go that put other takeout joints to shame.

Ravioli: These plump pasta pockets are on almost any Italian menu, so you’d be right to assume North End eateries have developed a multitude of scrumptious ways to fill them. Visit Terramia Ristorante to try the ravioli di fichi con maiale (fig-stuffed ravioli with pork medallions); Assaggio for decadent lobster ravioli in a lobster cream reduction; or G’Vanni’s for pumpkin ravioli served with burnt butter sage sauce. Refer to restaurant listings.

Veal: This tender meat is a staple dish in Italian cuisine. Get some “veally” good chow at Massimino’s (pictured above), home of the stuffed veal chop; Florentine Café, where the veal alla crema is served with shrimp, onions and roasted peppers in a sherry cream sauce; and Ristorante Saraceno, known for its veal scaloppini with prosciutto seasoned with fine herbs. Refer to restaurant listings.

Cannoli: For many, the debate over this quintessentially Italian dessert comes down to Mike’s Pastry (300 Hanover St., 617-742-3050) and Modern Pastry (257 Hanover St., 617-523-3783). Mike’s is the best-known, and its blue and white pastry boxes are ubiquitous throughout the city, while the Modern boasts Old World charm with its old-school neon sign. The dark-horse contender, Maria’s Pastry Shop (46 Cross St., 617-523-1196), hand-fills its cannolis for you right when your order. Truthfully, it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, so why not try them all?

Outdoor Recreation
The North End, with its busy sidewalks and its tight, densely populated streets, may seem like the quintessential city neighborhood. However, there are a few places where folks can go when they want to be outside playing games and getting exercise or just need an urban oasis with grass beneath their feet. Langone Park on Commercial Street, running right along where the North End meets Boston Harbor, is hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood’s shopping and dining scene, and boasts a great playground for kids, a baseball field and the popular North End Bocce Courts, where all summer long the neighborhood’s older residents (and some of the younger ones) play the traditional Italian game that involves rolling weighted balls along a 60-foot long court of packed gravel dust. (Some of us may remember playing the Anglo-cized version of the sport—lawn bowling— from childhood.) Just nearby is the Mirabella Pool, a public pool that is filled with splashing swimmers all season long.

Less active, but no less popular, is the scene at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park (Atlantic Avenue, adjacent to the Marriott Long Wharf). This grassy park boats a spray fountain for frolicking, a rose garden and a gorgeous wisteria-covered trellis that acts as a sort of gateway to the neighborhood. Residents and visitors enjoy sitting on quiet benches and, in the evening, the park is frequently a site for concerts and family activities.

Finally, there’s the Rose Kennedy Greenway—the recently constructed ribbon of green mini-parks that stretches from Chinatown to the North End. The Kennedy matriarch actually was born in the North End, so it makes perfect sense that some of the loveliest parts of the long urban greenspace established in her name are located just adjacent to the neighborhood. A prime attraction here is the beautiful new carousel set up across from Commercial Street that offers rides for just $3.

Until very recently, residents of the North End could get all their basic daily needs without ever leaving the neighborhood, but when they wanted to shop for personal items like clothes, jewelry and cosmetics, a trip to one of Boston’s more retail-friendly districts was a necessity. In the last decade, though, the neighborhood’s demographics have started to skew younger and—more importantly—increasingly female. The result? The North End has developed a burgeoning boutique community, leaping boldly into the 21st century as one of the city’s up-and-coming retail districts thanks to shops like the denim emporium In-jean-ius (441 Hanover St., 617-523-JEAN); retro-fabulous vintage shop The Velvet Fly (424 Hanover St., 617-557-4359); and the unique fashion boutique Bobbles and Lace (26 Prince St., 617-248-0419).

The North End’s retail renaissance isn’t simply limited to clothing, however. Lovers of high-end cosmetics can peruse Paula Tierney’s shop A Matter of Face (425 Hanover St., 617-742-5874), and any new outfit can be accessorized with sunglasses from Sol Optics (refer to shopping listing) or hand-made jewelry from shops like High Gear Jewelry (refer to shopping listing) and Filthy Rich Celebrity Jewelry (refer to shopping listing). Gift shopping is made simple thanks to the unique treasures found at Shake the Tree (67 Salem St., 617-742-0484) and Lovely Fare (refer to shopping listing), and finding one-of-a-kind furnishings and accessories to beautify one’s home is a snap at Artmosphere Gallery (refer to gallery listing) and Acquire Boutique (61 Salem St., 857-362-7380).

Of course, if you do want to shop for such staples as meat, produce, cheese and the like, you won’t find much fresher fare than the independent shops of the North End, many of which are family businesses handed down from generation to generation. Polcari’s Coffee (105 Salem St., 617-227-0786) has been doling out ground coffee, dried legumes and more since 1932, and in the summer it also draws a crowd outside for its cool and refreshing lemon slush, scooped directly from a bucket hanging on the front door. Alba Produce Market (18 Parmenter St.) is where North End locals get much of their fresh fruit and vegetables. (Something to remember about this tiny shop: no touching allowed! Point to what you want, and friendly proprietor Bruce Alba will hand it to you.) New arrival DePasquale’s Homemade Pasta Shoppe (66A Cross St., 617-248-9629) sells 50 different varieties of pasta, all homemade on the premises daily, and for all the ingredients for whipping up meals at home (and killer subs to go!), North End residents have long turned to J. Pace & Sons (42 Cross St., 617-227-9673). And if you want tips on all the best places to shop for food in the North End, food writer and longtime resident Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours (refer to sightseeing listing) offer the inside scoop, as well as free samples (always a good thing).

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