date published: June 5, 2006

Goni Topi; photo by Matt Kalinowski9 great ways to experience the real North End
by Josh B. Wardrop

No longer hidden by the massive construction project The Big Dig, Boston’s North End seems set to attract even more visitors with its authentic Old World vibe, its 86 tempting and mouth-watering Italian restaurants and bakeries and its historical attractions like the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church. But Panorama wants to ensure you don’t shortchange yourself on getting the full North End experience. So, here’s a few suggestions for how to look beyond the pizza and cannoli and get the most out of your visit to one of Boston’s most vibrant and charming neighborhoods.

Every neighborhood has that spot where the locals can be found chatting away, weighing in on matters both crucially important and blissfully inconsequential. In the North End, there are a number of such spots, but one of the most popular hangouts for longtime residents is Caffe Graffiti (307 Hanover St., 617-367-3016). One wall of the cozy café (which serves hot and cold beverages, beer, wine and liqueurs, as well as sinfully sweet desserts) is filled with the scrawled signatures of visitors from past decades. But unlike those who have come and gone, Graffiti also attracts a regular clientele of permanent North End residents, making it an excellent spot to hear the latest gossip, watch as produce vendors stop their trucks right on Hanover Street and hawk their wares (in Italian) to local shopkeepers, or gather with friends to watch the World Cup (hint: Cheering for Italia is a good way to stay in owner Luigi DeMarco’s good graces).

The best part about visiting a neighborhood known for its ethnic cuisine is the chance to try something you can’t get anywhere else, and the North End has lots of dishes that qualify. One not to be missed, though, is arancini—essentially a ball of rice filled with ground beef, peas and tons of gooey mozzarella cheese, then deep fried until it takes on a warm, bronzed hue. (The shape and color, in fact led to the name—“arancina” is Italian for “little orange.”) Locals agree that the best place to get this classic Italian street food is from the no-frills Galleria Umberto (289 Hanover St., 617-227-5709), a popular lunchtime take-out joint known for its filling, inexpensive food and long lines. Suggestion: get there at the start of the lunch crowd (11:30 a.m.) to beat the crowd and sample this Sicilian delicacy.

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. It’s there that you’ll find the North End bocce courts, where all summer long the neighborhood’s older residents (and some of the younger ones) play bocce, a traditional Italian game in which competitors gather on a 60-foot long court of packed gravel dust and see who can roll their small weighted balls closest to a target called a pallino. (Some of you may remember playing the Anglicized version of the sport—lawn bowling—from childhood.) The North End has bocce leagues, but games often break out spontaneously to the interest of passers-by or avid fans of the game. Who knows? If the players like you, maybe you’ll even be invited to take a shot at the pallino yourself.

Polcari's Coffee; photo by johnsavone.comESCAPE THE GRIND
When you need a cup of java on-the-go, there are plenty of places to stop in the North End (not Starbucks, though—in the largely chain-free North End, asking the natives for one of those will likely bring a look of horror and/or pitied amusement) and get your coffee fix. But if you’re a brew-your-own type, there’s only one place to truly fulfill your craving: Polcari’s Coffee (105 Salem St., 617-227-0786). A North End landmark for generations, the most aromatic family business in the neighborhood sells exotic and flavorful coffee beans from all corners of the globe—as well as loose tea, dried legumes, grains, rice and more than 150 types of spices and herbs. (And as summer arrives, they also serve a mean slush for the kids—served straight from the bucket in the front doorway.) So, no matter what kind of caffeinated beverage is your cup of tea, Polcari’s represents a true Beantown experience worth savoring.

Even set apart from the rest of Boston as the North End is, there’s no mistaking it for the heart of the city. So, what’s a North End denizen to do when they just want to read a book under the shade of a quiet tree? Well, if they’re in the know, they slip away from the throngs of visitors to the Old North Church (195 Salem St.), around the corner to the Washington Memorial Gate, wherein lies a beautiful brick courtyard, surrounded by benches and flowering plants, at the center of which stands a shady crabapple tree. It’s a spot you won’t find on any map, perfect for taking a momentary rest from your North End explorations.

Old North Church; photo by johnsavone.comTO MARKET WE WILL GO
Geographically removed as it is from the rest of Boston, it’s always been important that the North End have its own quality stores to provide residents with everything they need to whip up delectable cuisine for the traditional big family dinners. (Hey, even North Enders can’t eat out all the time.) Visitors can get the inside scoop on the best neighborhood spots to get all the best building blocks for culinary greatness from Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours (refer to listing). Topor, a graduate of La Scuola di Cucina in Bologna and a 30-year resident of the North End, takes her guests on a three-hour walking tour of the top groceries, produce shops, liquor stores and other specialty shops in the neighborhood, perusing everything from the imported chocolates, olive oils and Italian pine nuts at Dairy Fresh Candies (57 Salem St., 617-742-2639) to the exquisite meats and cheeses at Salumeria Italiana (151 Richmond St., 617-523-8743). Once you’ve taken Topor’s tour, you may not be able to cook just like your sainted Italian grandmother, but it won’t be for a lack of stellar ingredients.

Delicious cuisine abounds throughout the North End, but man cannot live on bread alone. That’s why the underground cigar bar Stanza dei Sigari (292 Hanover St., 617-227-0295) has evolved into one of the North End’s most popular hangouts for post-gustatory relaxation. Those who love a good stogie will find a couple dozen top varieties to choose from in this former 1920s speakeasy, which they can savor paired with fine cognac, scotch, port, martinis and other liquid libations. There’s even an exotic communal huqqa pipe for those who want to partake of their smoke the really old-fashioned way.

It’s often lamented that “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” Well, in the North End, there’s one place where they do make ’em—and by “’em,” we mean furniture, books, musical instruments, locks and more—exactly like they used to. The North Bennet Street School is a large, unassuming stone building wherein students both young and old learn the time-honored, tried-and-true method of crafting objects by hand. While the working school is generally open only to visitors on special occasions, the NBSS this past winter opened up a gallery (39 North Bennet St., 617-227-0155) that displays and sells some of the exquisite work done by students and graduates, giving anyone with an appreciation for new objects made in a very old way a chance to oooh and ahhh.

Finding a good restaurant in the North End used to be like waiting for a bus—if you waited on the corner long enough, one would just show up nearby. But if you wanted a day of shopping with the girls, it used to mean hopping on the T and crossing town to Newbury Street. Since autumn 2005, however, nine brand-new businesses have opened in the North End and—contrary to past patterns—none were restaurants. Instead, the North End has now become a burgeoning destination for independent shops like the eclectic gift boutique Shake the Tree Gallery (95 Salem St., 617-742-0484), designer denim shop In-jean-ius (441 Hanover St., 617-523-5326), baby boutique Bella Bambina (425 Hanover St., 617-722-6060), Prima Donna (30 Prince St., 617-723-1267), which sells gifts and clothing for children and dogs, and the vintage thrift shop Karma (26 Prince St., 617-723-8338).

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Antico Forno, 93 Salem St., 617-723-6733. Authentic brick-oven cooking—from pizza to slow-roasted chicken—is the hallmark of this traditional Italian restaurant.

Artu, 6 Prince St., 617-742-4336. Locals swear it’s the place to go for the best eggplant parm in the North End, and chefs from other neighborhood restaurants can often be spotted there during their lunch breaks.

Davide, 326 Commercial St., 617-227-5745 (pictured left). Lovers of Northern Italian cuisine have long flocked to Davide for its handmade pasta and ever-changing seasonal menu.

Florentine Café, 333 Hanover St., 617-227-1777. One of the flagships of the North End restaurant scene, its wrap-around, ceiling-to-floor windows that open to the street make this a great spot to dine in good weather.

Lucca, 226 Hanover St., 617-742-9200. Its overall warmth and upscale feel—not to mention the delicious food and extensive wine selection—make Lucca a popular destination.

Mamma Maria, 3 North Square, 617-523-0077. Boasting a charming location in historic North Square, this restaurant is renowned for its five spacious dining rooms and delicious gourmet take on traditional Tuscan cuisine.

Massimino’s Cucina Italia, 207 Endicott St., 617-523-5959. This off-the-beaten-path restaurant is lauded by patrons who enjoy creative variations on traditional Italian food.

Neptune Oyster, 63 Salem St., 617-742-3474. This trendy new addition—a raw bar and seafood restaurant serving the freshest catch from New England waters—takes advantage of the North End’s proximity to the harbor.

Strega, 379 Hanover St., 617-523-8481. A relative newcomer to the North End, Strega has made its name with great food and as a premier celebrity hang-out, with prominent athletes, politicians and entertainers frequently spied enjoying the sleek décor and tasty food.

Volle Nolle, 351 Hanover St., 617-523-0003. This eclectic breakfast spot (the name means “willy-nilly” in Latin) is a find for a.m. visitors. Try the smoked salmon and egg sandwich as a step up from your Dunkin Donuts bagel.