date published: August 19, 2002

photo by Kristin Kammerer

Little Italy—Italian delis like this one on top help give a distinct, Old World flavor to Boston’s North End

Respect your ingredients,” says Anthony Susi, chef/owner of award-winning Sage restaurant in the North End. Although Susi was talking about his philosophy on cooking, his words also symbolize the way of life in the North End—a proud community bonded by tradition, respect and love of food. Which is why when most people think of the North End, known as Boston’s “Little Italy,” they also think of red sauces and pasta, fine chianti and cannoli. And for good reason. The narrow streets of this Italian neighborhood, which borders Faneuil Hall and Boston Harbor, constantly brim with the aroma of garlic and freshly cooked cuisine. But the North End’s storied history is also part of its charm. The oldest neighborhood in the city, it was established in the early 1600s by English colonists. Later it was home to Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty, and settled in the 1800s by Irish, Jewish and finally Italian immigrants. It was on these cobblestone streets that the American Revolution got its start. In fact, the Old North Church, where Revere’s lanterns were hung before his midnight ride (“one if by land, two if by sea”) is still in operation; and Revere’s former home—the oldest wooden building in the city—is also very much intact and open for tours. Today, with such strong ties to its immigrant past, the North End remains one of the most European of neighborhoods in America.

Here is Panorama’s survey of the flavors, sights and attractions that make this beloved neighborhood unique

The North End is one of the only places where finding a “typical” restaurant is the ideal. There are a few things you can count on when you go out to eat here. First, the cuisine is authentic and consistently delicious, whether Old World Sicilian, traditional Northern Italian or Mediterranean fusion. And though the ambience could be boisterous, romantic or somewhere in between, the setting is usually intimate, with diners rubbing elbows with one another in crowded dining rooms—all part of the European feel.

After dinner, take a walk along Hanover Street—the North End’s main drag—and drop into a coffee shop such as Caffe Vittoria for a cup of cappuccino, a cannoli and a cigar. The cafes are an integral part of the North End dining experience. Mike’s Pastry is constantly overflowing with customers hoping to get a taste of their scrumptious confections, while the gelati and espresso selections attract locals and visitors alike to Caffe Graffiti.

As culinary aficionado Michele Topor demonstrates on her acclaimed North End Market Tour, it is at local stores like J. Pace & Sons or Salumeria Italiana where the magic of North End dining begins. Local food vendors are just as important as the neighborhood’s chefs. Their selections of giant rolls of cheese, fresh produce, cases of olive oil and herbs and spices attract shoppers of every order. For sweet tooths, Dairy Fresh Candies on Salem Street is like a Technicolor dream. The legendary shop, which has been around since 1957, offers chocolate-covered pretzels, nuts, gourmet jams and hundreds of other treats.

One of Boston’s most well-known attractions is, of course, the Freedom Trail. Three of its sites are located in the Hub’s oldest neighborhood: Boston’s oldest home, the Paul Revere House, which was built circa 1680 and occupied by the famed silversmith/patriot/midnight rider and his family (including 16 children!) from 1770–1800; Christ Church, a.k.a. the Old North Church, which is Boston’s oldest standing church (built in 1723) and served as the signal tower that spurred Revere on his jaunt through the countryside; and Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, founded in 1660 as the Hub’s second cemetery, which serves as the final resting place of many colonials, including the Puritan preachers of the Mather family and Edmund Hartt, shipwright of the Navy’s flagship U.S.S. Constitution.

History doesn’t end there, however. As if the ubiquitous Paul Revere weren’t prominent enough, there’s also the statue of him on his horse that resides in the pleasant, tree-lined plaza—named, naturally, the Paul Revere Mall—off Hanover Street adjacent to the Old North Church. St. Stephen’s Church—known as the New North Meeting House when it was first erected in 1714, and rebuilt by Boston architect Charles Bulfinch in 1802–04—lies at 401 Hanover Street. This Italian Renaissance-style house of worship (converted to a Catholic Church and renamed in 1862) is the only existing example of church architecture in Boston by Bulfinch, the planner behind the State House and Faneuil Hall in Boston and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Of note is its bell, cast by Revere, and its status as the baptism site of Kennedy family matriarch and former North End-er Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1890—back when the Irish, not the Italians, dominated the area.

There’s more than history to explore, though, as several tours of the area highlight the many wonders of this vibrant neighborhood. Boston By Foot offers a North End walking tour Fridays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. For a unique perspective, take the Historic Boston Walk entitled Sophie Tucker: Jewish Immigrant of the North End on August 31 at 11 a.m. Local actress/historian Linda Myer impersonates the legendary Jazz Age performer as she guides visitors through the neighborhood’s Jewish community of yesteryear. Last but certainly not least, given the area’s current Italian makeup, is the North End Market Tour, led by culinary expert Michele Topor.

Refer to listings in Sightseeing and Freedom Trail.

In keeping with its Old World character, the North End observes many traditions imported from the shores of Europe. One such annual rite is the appearance of weekly Italian feasts and processions throughout the summer that enliven this already spirited locale. From August 23–25, the 83rd St. Anthony’s Feast jubilantly parades a statue of St. Anthony—brought over from Montefalcione, Italy in 1919—through the labyrinthine North End streets. Christened the “Feast of All Feasts” by no less than National Geographic, the festival also offers traditional and contemporary music and food over the course the three days. The St. Lucy Feast, another long-standing tradition, follows on August 26 with even more processions, music and, of course, food.

Tired from parading through the neighborhood’s thoroughfares? Have a seat at the Improv Asylum on Hanover Street to take in the wild antics of this innovative comedy troupe. The Asylum offers off-the-cuff fun and hilarity at its original North End venue. A new resident cast performs the improv set entitled Allah in the Family on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A special presentation of the long-form improv show Alter Ego, a piece based on comic book super heroes, takes place on August 22 at 10 p.m.

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Keeping Up with the Market
Italian culinary expert Michele Topor gives an insider’s view of the North End
by Meredith Pitts

photo by Kristin Kammerer

FOLLOW THE LEADER—Michele Topor directs guests on her North End Market Tour.

Would you believe that great pasta could change your life? Although it sounds unlikely, after spending a morning with Michele Topor and her North End Market Tour, guests come away with a new appreciation for the diverse and healthful Italian culinary heritage. Topor’s tour explores the side streets of the North End, journeying from shop to shop and offering tidbits about an Italian pastry here and cooking tips there, spicing up the proceedings with heart-warming anecdotes about the people who live in this vibrant enclave.

How did the North End Market Tour begin?
About 12 years ago, I was still working as a nurse, but I had a cooking class through the Boston Center for Adult Education. All the ingredients came from the North End. Cooking class participants asked me to bring them around the neighborhood to show them where I bought the ingredients.

What advice would you give someone before arriving on the tour?
You should be very comfortable, because we keep a good pace. It’s very casual. Some people like to take notes, but this should be enjoyable. So take notes if you like but otherwise just listen and take it all in.

Do you have a particular story that illustrates the essence of the neighborhood?
It really is a village here. I love the greengrocer who is on vacation this week. He just closed up his shop and put a sign in the window, “It’s all about family.” That’s the way it is around here. It truly is all about family.


The North End

Can you give readers a sneak peek at some of the shops you visit?
My goal is to describe the way Italians eat and to understand how immigrants changed the food when they came to America. I try to present the healthy Mediterranean diet, and I introduce people to the stores that sell authentic Italian products. We visit a pastry shop to learn about all of the pastries and the traditions behind them. We visit a great confection store, a very old spice shop to breathe in the Old World smells, a bread bakery with a 130-year-old oven, a deli filled with the best that Italy has to offer, a greengrocer and two liquor stores.

Do you go to places where people can try things they’ve never tasted?
I try to get the benchmark flavors, so my participants know the flavors of the best authentic Italian food products. But some people have never tasted fresh figs or fennel. In the fall I serve persimmon.

How far in advance should someone book a tour?
For the Saturday tour, definitely a couple of months. Wednesday and Friday, usually a couple of weeks is enough. I am changing the tour to three and a half hours. I really struggled with how long the tour was getting to be, but I asked people what I could cut out, and kept hearing, “Just make it longer. Don’t leave anything out.”