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Last time I wrote, I claimed that R and I are still tourists in our own city. It gets worse (or better, depending on one’s perspective); we’re still tourists in our own neighborhood.
Thanks to our perpetual state of tourism (and thanks also to some very strategic and thoughtful birthday and Christmas gifts), R and I toured our own neighborhood one Saturday morning with Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours to learn about the culinary and historical aspects of the place where we live.
My new neighborhood is the oldest business and residential neighborhood in Boston, originally established in 1630 by English settlers. The neighborhood changed hands a few times, dominated by waves of new immigrants (Irish in 1845, Polish and Russian Jewish after that, Portuguese in the late 1800s, and then Italian in the 1920s). After our guide, Jim, outlined the history of the North End (much more eloquently than my attempt in the previous sentence) and talked about regions of Italy, we proceeded to our first stop of the tour – Maria’s Pastry Shop.
Maria and her family make delicious pastries that extend the conversation about North End pastries past cannoli and the “Mike’s or Modern” question. Maria even surprised me with a birthday cake! It could have been the cake, but I am now a Maria’s devotee who favors the totos she makes (a little chocolate spice cookie named after a comedian from Naples).
High on cake and surprise (and totos), I drifted along with the group to the best smelling shop in our neighborhood – Polcari’s. We sampled some of the hard-to-find grains the store offers in bulk, and learned about other ingredients. I was hoping I’d smell like coffee and spices when I left, but I think I would have needed to have stayed longer for that.
As R and I continued on, we learned useful details about our new neighborhood – where to get fresh pasta, what to do with fennel, the virtues of tomato paste in a tube, the difference between types of cinnamon, and how to use capers packed in salt (as opposed to the capers packed in water we were used to getting). We also learned about the history of the neighborhood itself – which streets existed early on, and which were a result of infill, what the buildings used to look like, and where people used to go to bathe (which, until 1976, was the communal bath house).
We also learned that, as new residents, we had the right to be boastful. Our neighborhood is the oldest neighborhood in Boston with the first public park in the United States, and the #1 Italian wine shop in the country (which was also the first to receive a liquor license after prohibition had been lifted). Putting aside firsts, we have people who continue to make the neighborhood great by installing public art projects and encouraging business owners and residents to sweep their sidewalks for a few minutes when needed.
I stood at the back of Cirace’s liquor store pondering all of this and sipping at my sample of homemade limoncello. This is a pretty good place to be, and I felt like I had just learned all the secrets that would make living here even better.
If you’re visiting Boston and you like food and (or) history, sign up for a North End Market Tour. Make sure to sign up early, as these tours are small and tend to fill up quickly. This company also offers a tour of Boston’s Chinatown which is on our agenda.