After graduating from business school several years ago, my wife and I spent about a year in Boston. Preparing to locate from St. Paul, we relied on our Google Maps skills to triangulate the perfect home base for a newly carless couple. Fortuitously, we landed in the North End.
While we enjoyed many aspects of living in this historically Italian enclave, this post will focus on the largest benefit – the food. Bachelor Porkchop focuses primarily on home cooking and travel, so I won’t spend much time on the fantastic restaurants except to emphasize they have taught me that the best way to prepare Italian food is simply and with very good ingredients. In fact, this rule applies to most food!
Over five years after leaving Boston, I have a chance to return and revisit my favorite restaurants and little shops where I provisioned so many kitchen treasures. Upon landing in Boston I took a water taxi across the harbor to the North End, which feels very bad assed – especially given the $12 fare.
My first stop was Salumeria, which has pastas, olive oils, and sausages I have seen nowhere else. My all time favorite olive oil was in stock (Frantoi Cutrera), as were farro and squid ink pastas. The olive oil has a high level of grass and black pepper in its flavor, which is perfect for an aggressive dressing or the finishing for a substantial dish like a braised lamb shoulder. These pastas make a very simple meal – with a few interesting mushrooms, some fresh herbs, and cheese – a special occasion meal. Salumeria reminds me of an “old world” version of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, which greatly influenced my interest in food and launched my quest for interesting olive oils and vinegars. Both Salumeria and Zingerman’s remain some of my favorite places to provision.
After a visit to Salumeria, I walked by a few other old favorites. Sulmona Meat Market is a butcher shop where a single person in front of you may result in 20 minutes before you have paid. Why? There are master butchers selecting the right cut of meat and properly trimming it by hand. There are no visible prices and a lot of the cuts are tucked away in a cooler rather than the visible meat counter. This is a shop where customers place complete trust in their butcher and where I learned to appreciate a good butcher, as well. They are focused on what they do and they’re an old fashioned outfit, so there is no website. I haven’t found another butcher shop like it, although Lowry Hill Meats in Minneapolis is a modern version of what this butcher shop represents.
Next, the subterranean and shoebox-sized fish market, The North End Fish Market, that had an informal oyster shucking class on Saturdays when we lived there – you just paid for what you ate. Sadly, the place that we used to visit for fresh pasta, expertly made charcuterie, and my first taste of proper burrata that had been made by hand in Italy less than 48 hours earlier, had closed its doors. A jolly old man behind the counter always welcomed us when we visited. He treated the shop like he had run it for decades even though it was owned by the local DePasquale empire. (Update: After some web searching, I learned some version of the pasta shop has been incorporated into Bricco.)
And next, I made a mandatory stop at Maria’s Pastries, a cannoli shop that lacks the shine of the famous Mike’s and Modern but makes up for it in product. I picked up some totos, my wife’s favorite allspice chocolate cookie, to make the trip home. On a side note, these are very different than the “totos” that our young daughter enjoys through peak tomato season.
Our year in the North End refined our appreciation for some very simple ingredients. Michele Toper’s walking tour introduced us to some of the favorites I mentioned. Something we still make frequently is a fennel salad, which is long strips of fennel chilled in ice water, drained, dried with a clean cloth, dressed in a grassy olive oil, and finished with salt and pepper. It has the perfect mix of crunch, fresh light flavor, and anticipation for what is next in the meal.
This salad was a far cry from the braised fennel I knew from growing up in the Midwest.
Finally, I found myself at Cafe Vittoria, located on the North End’s famed Hanover street, drinking a perfect cappuccino from a Cimbali. The small granite tables just inside the very large open windows make a great perch for whiling away an hour and writing a post.