It’s Sunday evening in Boston’s North End…
Tight-knit community and traditional cuisine anchor a historically Italian neighborhood.
Words: Alyssa Giacobbe
Images: Joe St. Pierre
For the better part of the last century, newly-arrived Italian-Americans would pay homage to the old country by spending Sundays making red sauce — gravy, they’d call it — an all-day affair that typically involved enough garlic to water your eyes from half a block away. How you made your sauce said a lot about you as an Italian — onions or red pepper flakes, basil or oregano, meatballs or braciole, whether you liked your San Marzanos whole or crushed. There were no recipes, only “a bit of this” and “some of that.”
More or less, this weekly tradition is one that has stood the test of time in Boston’s North End, the city’s oldest residential neighborhood and a place where culture and custom have endured since the 1860s, when the first immigrants from Genoa arrived. “Sunday in the North End brings you back to the old ways,” says Frank DePasquale who — six decades after he watched soccer as a boy at Caffe Dello Sport, still a favorite area hangout — now owns an empire of local businesses, including multiple eateries, a salumeria, a panetteria, and a boutique hotel called Bricco Suites.
“First you go to church, then cook or go to a restaurant for supper. After, you tell stories and then, in the American way, you watch sports.” DePasquale recalls how his father kept a boom box on top of the refrigerator, and they’d listen to soccer matches as his mother prepared the feast. Naturally, their team at the time was Naples. “If they won, we would have a meal,” says DePasquale. “If they didn’t…well, sometimes we wouldn’t eat at all, even though my mother did all that work.”
The North End’s ability to hang onto its heritage owes in large part to geography: Up until 10 years ago, the neighborhood overlooking Boston Harbor was essentially cut off from the rest of the city by an elevated steel highway. But the 2007 completion of the Big Dig, one of New England’s biggest-ever construction projects, sunk that roadway underground. Since then, new has slowly blended with old.
Cottages dating back to Colonial times live alongside turn-of-the-century tenement buildings on the narrow, one-way streets. These coexist with new construction along the waterfront and boutiques around the main Hanover Street drag, from upscale women’s clothing shop Injeanius to Shake the Tree, a purveyor of eclectic homegoods.
Family-style Sicilian joints like Carmellina’s run into sleek lounges like raw bar Neptune Oyster or coffee shop Thinking Cup, where baristas peddle a gluten-free tiramisu and dairy-less foccacia alongside their mugs of Stumptown. Elsewhere the young and young-at-heart convene around the Rose Kennedy Greenway Carousel — sited on Big Dig-created green space — and observe the menagerie of lobster, cod, and harbor seals that rotates around its axis.
There is no culture clash: Most residents and visitors say the North End’s mix of old country and new blood is what makes it charming. Every Sunday at golden hour, the cigar bar Stanza dei Sigari hosts patrons in their 20s mingling with those in their 80s. “It’s not like the Little Italys of the past,” says DePasquale, who runs his mini-empire with the help of his two grown children. “For one thing, there is no one universal sauce anymore. Similarly, you also see there’s not one type of North Ender.”
Even those families who’ve moved out to find more space in the suburbs come back with predictable regularity, especially in the summer, when every weekend sees a feast honoring one saint or another: Saint Anthony, Santa Maria. “Walking up and down the streets in July, you hear the different dialects,” says DePasquale. But the subject matter, he says, is almost always the same: “It all comes back to food, sports, and family.”
4 Purveyors to Shop
North End edition
Monica’s Mercato & Salumeria
Monica’s hand-produces nearly 20 pastas of every shape and persuasion daily, along with pints of the perfect sauce to match.
Sulmona Meat Market
A tiny butcher shop with big cuts. Come here for your pork, veal, lamb, and specialty salumi.
Family-owned and -operated, Modern Pastry has turned out cannoli, anise cookies, and pizzelle for three generations.
The Wine Bottega
Bottles from little-known, high-quality producers hail from the far corners of Italy, with plenty of vino under $20.