Being a Bostonian that grew up in a New York family (go Yankees!) can make it difficult for me to woo my non-Boston friends and family of all the wonders Boston has to offer. I am also from an Italian family from whom I have heard frequent laments of the ever shrinking Little Italy in New York. As soon as I got to know Boston’s Italian neighborhood, the North End, I knew I found something special about Boston that would impress even the most steadfast “New York is better” kind of people.
The old brick buildings and narrow streets of the North End make the historic nature of the neighborhood almost palpable. Keeping with the prevalent revolutionary history Boston has to offer, the North End contains the Paul Revere House and the original North Church, now known as the Second Church. The neighborhood has gone through many changes, at first a wealthy puritan stronghold, it became a disease ridden hub for impoverished waves of immigrants, at first the Irish, then Eastern European Jews and finally the Italians. Today, Italians still comprise over 40% of the population in the neighborhood (source). Although I don’t understand what they’re saying (yet!) I am always elated to hear the locals conversing in Italian on the streets of the North End, which for me solidifies its authenticity as a standout Italian neighborhood.
Although there are copious amounts of sit down restaurants in the North End my ideal day typically avoids those establishments in favor of snacking on the go while exploring the neighborhood, the harbor or the beautiful Rose Kennedy Greenway. As a budget traveler myself, my ideal North End day described below is meant to give you delicious and luxurious experiences but on the cheap!
To pick up some delicious snacks my first stop is always the Salumeria (located at 151 Richmond St). They offer the best selection of sliced cured meats, including several types of prosciutto and my favorite, a delicious mortadella! Don’t miss sampling their pesto and be sure to grab a few artichoke hearts and olives from the anti-pasti bar. The ultimate standout product that the Salumeria sells however is a nip sized container of top quality balsamic vinegar, called Rubio Aged Balsamic Vinegar, which is ideal for snacking on the go! To be legitimate balsamic vinegar, it must be created in the Italian areas of Modena or Emilia-Romagna and aged at least 12 years before it can be certified by the government as legit. This is the kind of balsamic vinegar that slowly crawls out of the container and packs an intense flavor punch in every drop! It also costs an arm and a leg as far as vinegar is concerned. Now, Rubio Aged Balsamic Vinegar did not go through any type of official certification process but it is of the same quality and at a much reduced cost. Grabbing one or two nips of Rubio Aged Balsamic Vinegar to enhance your snacking will only set you back a couple dollars but will make you feel like you are winning during your lovely day in the North End.
Another place to get savory prepared foods for snacking is Monica’s Mercato (located at 130 Salem Street). Although they also have some sliced meats, I would stick to the prepared foods here. My particular favorite is the Arancini, which they will heat up for you. As it turns out, both the Salumeria and Monica’s are typically staffed with very good looking Italian men – but I can assure you this has not impacted my opinion of their products! I would recommend eating the heated snacks from Monica’s as you stroll around and saving the goods from Salumeria for the final destination of this day (described below).
Last but not least you will need to buy something sweet to round out your meal. On hot summer days the people at Polcari’s (located at 105 Salem St) will scrape you up a refreshing lemon slush to cool you down. However, if you’re like me and prefer sweets of the pastry, butter laden variety then I would recommend heading to Maria’s Pastry Shop (located 46 Cross St). Anyone who visits Boston will inevitably see people toting the blue and white boxes of Mike’s Pastry as far away from the North End as Somerville! For some reason, perhaps due to its central location on the main drag of Hanover Street, Mike’s is always packed! I have eaten the confections from Mike’s as well as the nearby, and also popular, Modern Pastry, but I confidently assert that Maria’s is best! In a direct head to head to head taste test (this was difficult work indeed!), Maria’s cannoli won my heart with her light ricotta cream filling which had a hint of lemon that you don’t get from the other guys. Maria’s also sells all the traditional Italian cookies, including my favorite tri-colored Neapolitans! Maria also makes Savoiardi from scratch (lady fingers) which I NEVER see anywhere else. To give you a little perspective on why I am so excited about the homemade Savoiardi, they are my 92 year old grandmother’s favorite. The last time she had the energy to go back to NYC she insisted on looking for some Savoiardi at the local bakeries in Little Italy and we had to give up after checking the 3rd shop. We couldn’t find them anywhere! Points for Maria’s! It certainly wouldn’t hurt to try the pastries from all the pastry shops in the neighborhood, I mean does that sound bad? But Maria’s is definitely my favorite.
The North End is also located adjacent to the Boston harbor. In lieu of fancy (read: expensive!) harbor cruises, my friends and I have gotten into the practice of taking our North End treats onto the MBTA commuter ferry which takes off from Long Wharf – a short walk from the North End. We generally take the F2 line which takes off from Long Wharf North and goes down to the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy and back again. We always buy a one way ticket because we never get off the boat at the Quincy side and no one has ever given us any problems for doing this (though I wouldn’t flaunt your plan to the employees!). The one way pass is $8 and there is a bar on the boat! Be prepared for a windy ride (the commuter ferry goes faster than a normal cruise boat) that lasts about 1 ½ hours. You’ll be able to look at the many harbor islands that dot the Boston Harbor and check out the old USS Salem, a heavy cruiser commissioned by the US Navy. It was decommissioned and brought to Fore River Shipyard I believe as part of a museum in the area. It’s gun laden frame is a unique site to see. The ferry route is adjacent to the airport and if you are luck a plane might fly directly over the boat providing a sufficiently awesome Wayne’s World moment. If possible try to time your ferry ride so that you will be returning to Long Wharf as the sun is setting. There is really no better time to see the Boston skyline on your way back to shore!
Day at a glance:
When to Go: Any day but Sunday! Many of the shops are closed on Sunday’s in the North End. Also, this is best as a warmer weather excursion (particularly for the boat ride). Try to start mid-afternoon, a few hours before the sunset!
- Sliced meats and anti-pasti at Salumeria (151 Richmond Street)
- Prepared snacks/appetizers at Monica’s Mercato (130 Salem Street)
- Dessert from Maria’s Pastry (46 Cross Street)
- Walk around and explore!
- Visit the Paul Revere House(for history buffs)
- Enjoy your snacks, explore the Boston Harbor Islands and view the Boston skyline at sunset on the MBTA commuter ferry