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Boston, more than other places, can feel like something you look at, read about, and admire from a distance. More extroverted Northeast cities like New York and Philadelphia land on you with force and almost immediately, but Boston doesn’t always feel like it’s happening to you as much as you’ve happened upon it.
The phenomenon is underscored by a lingering soft spoken puritan sensibility (save for Bud Light-soaked college coeds after a Red Sox win), and the prevalence of deep history that demands your somber attention at every turn. Much of Boston’s outward facing personality is framed around what it once was, which means working a little bit harder to get below the surface or find its pulse, to borrow some overused idioms.
The North End of Boston, or “Little Italy,” as it’s often and incorrectly referred to, is something of a microcosm of this “Boston effect.” A one-square-mile neighborhood settled by Puritans, it’s the oldest residential neighborhood in a city with many old residential neighborhoods, boasting over 100 establishments, most of them Italian eateries.
Because of its undeniable cobblestone charm and distinct personality, the North End economy is now driven heavily by tourists looking for pizza, pasta, and cannoli. Unbridled tourism like this can strike fatal blows to the authenticity and quality of any food-driven neighborhood and, to an extent, this has become the case here.
This doesn’t mean it should be avoided altogether - quite the opposite, in fact - but to get your money’s worth and experience the North End as a local might mean you're going to have to pay close attention, let the neighborhood come to you a little bit, and when in doubt, let your nose be your guide.
If your nose has any training at all, it will take you directly to Bricco Panetteria (241 Hanover Street) for some of the city’s best fresh bread. This is a can’t-miss if you’re in the North End but you will absolutely miss it if you don’t know it’s there; the panetteria is hidden behind its namesake restaurant, accessed only by a slim alley off of Hanover. Just across the alley is another important arm of the Bricco empire, the Salumeria and Pasta shop. You owe it to yourself to taste an Italian sandwich here—as good as any this side of the Atlantic.
Back on Hanover, out-of-towners form laughably long lines outside the well-documented bakeries like Mike’s and Modern Pastry. Both are perfectly positioned on the North End’s bustling main artery, and churn out completely edible cannoli and italian cookies. Wave at them knowingly as you saunter by heading north and hang a left on Prince Street toward Bova’s Bakery (134 Salem Street).
Around since 1926, Bova’s was originally a grocery owned by a Jewish family whose descendants went on to found the Stop & Shop empire. It later changed hands to an Italian family and, these days, the crew is cranking out rich cannoli with creative flavors like crème brûlée in a civilized setting with both manageable prices and wait times. Bova’s is open 24/7 and their sandwiches and gourmet “hot pocket”-style mini calzone’ will soak up the house wine you will surely drink too much of later on. You’re in Boston too, so don’t leave without a lobster tail or “sfogliatella”—a cascading, Italian croissant that resembles a lobster tail filled with sweet cream.
The award for “Best New Restaurant on the Block” that you won’t find in your guidebook (yet) goes to Aqua Pazza, a small, bright seafood-driven joint set back from the Hanover madness, perched on the corner of Richmond and North streets. The year-old venture was brought forth by Boston mainstay, Frank DePasquale, and newcomer, Michael Paquette.
The menu here is alive with inventive small plates like arancinis busting with buttery fish and divinely soft burrata with tomato jam. Bigger things inhabit the middle of the menu like housemade pappardelle with braised pork ragu, laced with crunchy and sweet pork cracklings which added so much to the dish that my group decided they should be sold separately and in bulk.
This is not your typical North End joint and has become a draw for locals and a favorite of hotel concierge catering to a clientele less impressed by 100-year-old marinara recipes but rather food that works hard and surprises. A flurry of crudos like tuna with truffle and tiger shrimp with vermentino and roasted pepper serve as examples of its nouveau mindset.
At the creakier spots on Hanover, don’t expect much in the way of innovation (for better or worse) but Paquette tells me his chef, Matthew Jackson, with surprising background in Japanese cooking, loves to have fun on and off the menu. A recent group of diners challenged Jackson to make his whole roasted fish “Thai style” (try asking for that on Hanover). It was such a hit on the table and on the restaurant’s Instagram that “it’s become a bit of a thing.” Ask for it by name and if Jackson is able, he’ll absolutely do it for you.
The North End juts out like a ballcap on the city’s head. It wasn’t until the 1880s that Italians started spilling in, but when they did, it was decisive. By the 1930s, the North End was almost completely inhabited by Italians hailing from all over The Boot and bringing their own distinct culinary traditions.
One of these traditions, a style from the southern region of Abruzzo, lives on at Ristorante Lucia (415 Hanover). Lucia is far enough back from the true hustle of Hanover to be completely overrun, and attracts a local set. Abruzzo is famous for simple, hearty dishes to be shared and the team here does a traditional (off-the-menu) “polentata” for big groups: a mound of creamy polenta set down in the middle of the table, served with marinara sauce and sautéed meats and vegetables.
Perhaps my very favorite place to visit and another that doesn’t always make ‘best of’ lists is Polcari’s Coffee—a coffee, spice and candy shop with smells you’ll want to bottle and purchase. Opened in 1932 by Anthony Polcari, it’s now run by Bobby Eustace who apprenticed under Polcari and has kept its spirit alive in full.
Polcari’s is wholly transportative, like some mystical apothecary. Shelves of roasted coffee beans line the walls and smaller jars of colorful spices guard the counter next to old metal scales, Italian licorice candies, nuts, and fancy chocolate bars. Bobby or a member of his team will happily spin you a yarn about the old neighborhood over the hum of the cappuccino machine—it takes very little to get him going. For just $2, you can also score a paper cup of their famous lemon slush. There’s nothing like it on a sweaty summer day.
For lodging in the heart of North End's Italian neighborhood, there are almost no options. But just outside its confines you'll find the Harborside Inn—a 116-room indie boutique hotel with retro lobby flair and a warm, attentive crew. Originally built in 1846 as a mercantile shipping warehouse, the location is as good as it gets if you're in town to mangia.
At long last, to cap your North End adventure, you must truly do as the Romans do and drink wine late into the early morning while rubbing elbows with locals. For that, head back to Bricco. Not the bakery or salumeria, but the streetfront restaurant and lounge. This restaurant has anchored Hanover for decades and is one of the only places open late for cocktails or wood-fired pizzas. You’re liable to run into major local characters here after midnight. Just slick your hair back a touch, tell them you got cannoli at Bova’s, and you'll fit in fine.
I live in Brooklyn where I write about food, booze, cooking, and travel. Anything with sesame is my all-time favorite food this week.