Take with Food

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Rx for Surviving Boston’s North End
by Rosie DeQuattro • Photography by Michael Piazza

It’s only 11am but the line at the counter at Mike’s is filling in and starting to stretch back to the door. Across the street, at Galleria Umberto, serious customers queue for their arancine and panzarotti.  And along Hanover the cafés are already full. Weather-On-The-Ones predicts sun and a high of 90° today, the start of a summer weekend. Tonight you might want to be anywhere in Boston but the North End—unless of course, you live here.

Assumptions about the North End tend to polarize, and everyone is an expert. I’ve heard, “Why would I ever go there—the food stinks, and it’s too expensive,” as often as, “There’s no better neighborhood in all of Boston to live in than the North End.” Something is happening here and, as the song goes, what it is “ain’t exactly clear.”

Most of the negative criticism is directed towards the restaurants that do seem at times bent on undoing the Old World Italian culture the North End became famous for. One lifelong North End resident, who didn’t want his name used because he knows too many people, gave me an earful. If you take a Friday or a Saturday night in the North End, he described, preferably in summer, especially if the Celtics or the Red Sox or the Patriots are in town, add lots of young female tourists, and marinate it all in wine, what you get is a high-octave, piercing sound that bounces off the stone walls and ricochets down the narrow residential streets and alleys of the North End at 2am.

He believes that as the North End’s popularity with tourists grew, its standards declined. “When the tourists come in and they order gelato, you’re not necessarily getting real gelato,” he revealed. “It could be a commercial ice cream. Sometimes veal is not veal—it could be pork.”

A major difference between the pre-tourism-driven North End of, say, 30 years ago and now, he explained, is that 30 years ago the restaurants were run by families, usually in family-owned buildings. Owners knew all their customers. They were feeding friends from the neighborhood. There was accountability. “Now, some of these restaurants are paying $10,000 a month for rent. Everything is cooked ahead of time.” Owners need to keep their restaurants tightly packed to maximize profits. “It’s simply business: The higher the number of people you can serve for the lowest amount of cost equals more money in your pocket. I don’t eat in the restaurants,” he added. “I cook Italian at home.”

Michele Topor, who owns Boston North EndMarket Tours and has lived in the North End for 40 years, agreed that the restaurants are tourist-driven and expensive. She shops in the North End for Italian ingredients that she cooks at home. (She would argue, however, that the restaurants have gotten better over the years, upgrading from standard Italian-American fare like spaghetti and meatballs to dishes using authentic Italian ingredients like extra-virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Parma prosciutto and more and more high-quality ingredients).

But the restaurants tell only half the story of today’s North End.  “The old North End is still there,” Topor reassured me; “you just have to look harder.”

In her 1961 highly influential book on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author Jane Jacobs used the North End repeatedly as an example of what a successful city neighborhood can be. She described “a general street atmosphere of buoyancy and friendliness; streets alive with children playing, people shopping, strolling, talking, even sitting.”

Today, many North Enders feel this vibrancy is still present. Take Stephen DeAngelis, owner of the Golden Goose. DeAngelis was tough to interview—not because he was reticent, but because he couldn’t help himself from addressing every passerby during our sidewalk session.  “Hey, baby, did you pick up that case of liquor?” he shouted to the guy across the street. “Hi, Mike, see you on Thursday,” after another few minutes. “Hey, Bobby, I see you’ve gotten some color back in your face,” as he shook Bobby’s hand. “Need some directions?” he offered a confused-looking customer.

DeAngelis has owned The Golden Goose, a green grocer on Commercial Street, for 34 years. “Truly, the North End is still the nicest neighborhood in Boston to live.When a car breaks down in the neighborhood, he knows we keep jumper cables here for anyone to use. And it’s not just us; it’s the way the whole area is. If someone in the neighborhood is going to be away, they might leave us with their keys in case the UPS guy delivers a package. It’s friendly; it’s the safest place in the city.”

DeAngelis described his store as a local neighborhood market, embodying the “old” idea of accountability. “We see our customers 2–3 times a day. We do our own butchering; we have our own full bakeshop; make our own sausage and grind our own beef. This is the neighborhood we live in.”

“We used to say that you never had to leave the North End unless you had to go to a CVS.” Patrice Macaluso moved to the North End in 1982 (when there was no CVS) with her husband, John O’Connell.  They live on Hanover Street. “I wanted a safe place to live in the city. Here, I felt that I could just walk everywhere and…know everybody.” O’Connell said, “It’s like a small town contained inside a city. Spend some time in Pepe’s [Green Cross Pharmacy] and you’ll see every Italian in town.” Together they described their enviable lifestyle sounding a lot like life in an Old World Italian village. “When you live in the North End, you always go to the green grocer, you always go to the butcher or you go to the [one and only] fish market, Mercato del Mare—everyone in the North End goes there.”

They quickly tick off some of their favorite food haunts and some advice. “Parziale Bakery on Prince Street makes a seven-grain bread on Friday and Saturday which is really, really good, but you’ve got to get there early because they sell out.” Boschetto’s on Salem Street makes little spuckies, [a type of sandwich roll]. Maria Merola at Maria’s Pastry on Cross Street has been making zeppole and sfogliatelle for the past 30 years the same way she made them in her native Avellino, Italy. “I discovered that she’d sell me her small sfogiatelle frozen so I could bake them at home!”

In the summertime, a neighbor will drop off a couple of liters of homemade wine, made from grapes grown in his garden right next door; or a basket of his tomatoes. Having fresh basil or celery is just a matter of going next door to pick it. They feel very, very lucky to live there. They don’t own a car. “We use the T in the winter, or Zip Car, and on weekends we rent a car to go out of town.”

For small food business owners, the story gets a little murky. At Alba Produce on Parmenter, a customer asks, “Where’s the favas?” Owner “Albie” Alba responds “Sorry, still no favas, check back later,” and the customer leaves agreeing to come back. Another customer stops in and says, “Albie, how about those oranges you sold to my mother?” Albie knows the ones and bags a few orange globes and hands the bag to the customer. He takes out a pencil and scribbles down a number on a scrap of paper from his shirt pocket, then stuffs the scrap into an envelope that’s bulging with similar scraps—the cash register. No money is exchanged. This is how Albie keeps track of his customers’ tabs.

Outside the store, a young mother shouts in, “Any spinach?” Her child is screaming in the carriage and she doesn’t want to bother to come up the steps into the store. Albie bags a bunch of spinach and takes it out to her on the sidewalk, then records the sale on another paper scrap. Later, a local restaurant chef comes by to pick up fennel for the evening rush. One long-time customer said, “If I’m broke I can go to Albie and he’ll give me what I need, potatoes or whatever. Albie takes great care with his produce and with his customers.” Albie says, “It’s a tough business,” but he’s surviving OK.

Half of Albie’s customers are “old timers,” the ones who expect this kind of service. But a growing phenomenon threatens the sustainability of the North End as a viable neighborhood and way of life: The number of old timers is dwindling. They are being replaced by young professionals with few or no children. The story I’ve pieced together, from Franco Susi at Sulmona’s, from Peter Rossi at D & R Meat Market and from Liz Ventura and Kerri Cassidy at the fish market and from others is this: A lot of the old timers died or moved. Some 20 or 30 years ago, out-of-town Italian families would come into the North End on a Saturday to shop for meat, cheese, bread and cold cuts—enough to feed a family for a week. If you lived in the North End, you would shop like that everyday. In the 1980s and ’90s, North End buildings originally purchased for $10,000 were being sold for $250,000 and up. Many were turned into condominiums. There was a get-rich quick frenzy. Families were picking up and moving to the suburbs, to places like Medford and Malden where they could have room for a big garden and a big car. Supermarkets and suburban shopping malls began to replace the mom-and-pops. “Big supermarkets wipeout little guys like me,” Albie said.

Susi said, “The number of people who have shopped here regularly for 40 years is dwindling and their kids have so many more choices.” Years ago you could only get Italian products in the North End. Now, BJ’s is selling pannettone. Sulmona’s Meats, named after the town in Italy owner Domenico Susi is from, has been in the Susi family for 40 years. Franco describes his present clientele as 22–38 years old, single professionals or married with few children. “They don’t even cook; they want prepared food they can heat up. Tough to market to the young crowd.”

Peter Rossi agreed. He’s the “R” in D & R Meat Market on Salem Street. He’s been in business since 1968. His clientele is almost exclusively the old timers. “Old school Italians didn’t trust supermarkets; they want their meat cut in front of them.” They know precisely what they want and how much of it, so he cuts everything to order. When you walk into D & R there is no meat in sight—and it’s clean as a whistle. “Younger people come in and don’t know what to order.” He said when he retires, there’s no one to take over; “no one has the skills anymore.”

Mercato del Mare seems to have struck a balance. Owners Cassidy and Ventura maintain some of the old North End traditions while trying to stay current and relevant at the same time. Like the standing order for razor clams. “They keep a list at the register of all the old Italian guys who want razor clams,” Macaluso told me. When the truck from Island Creek pulls up to the fish market, Cassidy and Ventura start calling the names on the list. “The guys want to make pasta with razor clams just like their Mom used to make.”

Ventura said, “There used to be butchers, produce vendors, fish markets all up and down Salem Street.” People began moving out to the suburbs, and families got smaller and smaller. “There are not enough people to sustain more than one fish market,” she explained. Single people are the ones shopping now in the North End, with small or no families. “It’s a hustle. The money is not flying through the door. We have to work at it. We’re on Facebook, we give shucking classes and we have a newsletter. We stay open until 8pm to accommodate our younger working customers. The butcher shops close at 6. You’ve got to change with the times.”

Polcari’s Coffee, in business for 78 years in the same spot at the corner of Salem and Parmenter Streets, closes at 6pm and is closed on Sundays. Owner Bobby Eustace told me that he does a big business, though, in grains and legumes thanks to his increasingly health-conscious mail-order clientele.

Susi said, “I don’t want to change too much from how we’ve been doing it for 40 years.” He shrugs his shoulders: “It’s tough, it’s really tough.”

Is there a bright spot? Macaluso and O’Connell said they’ve noticed recently that there are more and more kids in the neighborhood. Torpor said, “You wouldn’t believe the number of baby carriages I see in this neighborhood!” She said she sees more non-Italian families who want to grow their families in a safe, friendly neighborhood. “Also, we see a lot of empty-nesters coming back—people who have had their big houses in the suburbs, the kids are moving out and they’re bored and wonder what are they doing in the suburbs.” The North End, she said, is where they want to grow old.

So, is Boston’s North End a victim of its own success or a work in progress? Indeed it wasn’t always Italian. It was Irish for many decades.  Later, German, Russian and Polish Jews dominated; then it was Portuguese, and by the early 20th century and up to the present day, Italian.  My guess is that it will stay that way for a long while.

But spend a morning here in, say,May. Have a cappuccino while you listen to the sounds of the city coming to life. Shoot the breeze with the bartender and ask about his kids or about his mother’s health. Stop by Alba’s and see if he’s got in the favas.Maybe splurge on a zeppole at the bakery and a few sfogliatelle for tonight’s dessert.Within a few blocks, assemble everything you need for a delicious dinner, with leftovers—then you tell me.

Rosie DeQuattro, a regular contributor to Edible Boston magazine, can be reached at rosie@edibleboston.net or www.rosiedequattro.com.

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