Unofficially referred to as Boston’s “Little Italy,” the North End is one of the Hub’s smallest neighborhoods (a one-square-mile area jutting out into Boston Harbor), but it has played an outsized role in the city’s cultural, historical, and gustatory history. Conveniently located within walking distance of Government Center, it is Boston’s oldest residential area, with a history of European settlement that stretches back to the Puritans in the early 17th century.
Over the past 400 years, the area has been home to an early African American community and to waves of Irish, eastern European Jewish, and, more recently, Italian immigrants. By 1930, almost all of the neighborhood’s inhabitants were Italian (although changing demographics has brought that down to about one-third today) and the North End had gained its reputation as Little Italy. Today, it continues to be a popular destination for Bostonians and travelers from all over the globe seeking Italian cuisine. The neighborhood’s summer street festivals honoring revered saints attract crowds from throughout the Boston area.
Boston’s popular Freedom Trail, which leads to sites of significance in the American Revolution, wends its way through the North End and to three of the trail’s historic destinations. And one of the most popular sections of Boston’s extensive HarborWalk is in the North End, where it skirts the water’s edge along historic wharves, residences and businesses, the US Coast Guard base, and Puopolo Park.
“While the Italian and Italian-descended population are not the majority, they are still a larger percentage of the population than we find in other so-called Little Italys,” says James Pasto, a College of Arts & Sciences senior lecturer in the Writing Program who teaches a summer course about the social history of Boston’s North End. “This Italian presence,” he continues, “is felt in the community groups, businesses, and on the streets, in the bocce games. It helps to promote community integrity and neighborliness.”
So pay a visit to the North End to get a feel for the Italian community and a greater sense of the area’s history. The neighborhood boasts more than 100 restaurants, cafés, and bakeries, and numerous sites of historical significance. BU Today has compiled a list of some of the best places to investigate, nosh, and shop when you visit.
Boston Public Market
100 Hanover St.
Long in the planning stages, the Boston Public Market finally opened in July 2015, giving shoppers a permanent, year-round, indoor market offering fresh produce, meat and poultry, eggs, milk and cheese, fish, baked goods, and specialty and prepared foods. The market is located in a 30,000-square-foot building at Haymarket Station and is entirely locally sourced, featuring vendors from around New England. Among the food vendors are Crescent Ridge Dairy from Sharon, Mass., which offers over 35 inventive flavors of ice cream. Try the popular Black Bear flavor (raspberry ice cream with chocolate chips and chocolate-covered raspberry truffles). Another must-try: the fresh and hot cider donuts from Red Apple Farm, located in Phillipston, Mass.—their sweet, fried aroma fills the entire market. Note: the market is open Wednesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
216 Hanover St.
One of Boston’s most storied comedy clubs, Improv Asylum has been providing laughs and entertainment since 1998. There are improvised or sketch comedy shows every night, and there is a bar for those who want to enjoy an adult beverage with their laughs. Students get a $5 discount on tickets for any show except those on Mondays and Tuesdays (Boston Improv already offers discounted tickets for $5 on those nights) and Saturday’s Main Stage shows. You must show a valid student ID. The club also offers professional improv and sketch writing classes for adults.
233 Hanover St.
Ray Bourque, the legendary defenseman who played 21 seasons for the Boston Bruins and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004, opened this traditional Tuscan eatery in 2005. Tresca serves established Italian fare, including a large selection of antipasti (tuna bruschetta and beef carpaccio are standouts), homemade pastas, and hard-to-find Italian wines. It’s been named the best athlete-owned restaurant in the East by USA Today. If you’re not sure what to order, try the restaurant’s tasting menu. For $75, Tresca’s chefs will design a four-course menu for you, and for an additional $40, they’ll even pair complementary wines with your food.
236 Hanover St.
If you like to wear bright and colorful clothes, then LIT Boutique is sure to please. This store offers a small but unique selection of women’s clothing, especially pants, dresses, shoes, and belts. Featuring such designers as Kate Spade, BB Dakota, and DL1961, the prices lean toward the expensive. If you’re shopping on a budget, head to the back of the store, where you’ll find a 50 percent off sale rack.
Bricco Ristorante and Panetteria
241 Hanover St.
It can be difficult to distinguish between the many Italian restaurants in the North End, but Bricco is a standout. The restaurant, which offers contemporary cuisine, an extensive wine list, and a late-night menu (brick-oven pizzas and innovative cocktails) from 11 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, has become a popular destination. Bricco bills itself as offering “sophisticated ‘boutique’ Italian cuisine” and it’s an apt description. At the rear of the restaurant, down a narrow ally, stands an entirely separate panetteria that offers fresh, delectable artisan bread for sale daily. Bricco was recently voted one of the Top 10 Restaurants in America by Esquire.
253 Hanover St., second floor
Though relatively new to the North End, Aria Trattoria is already steeped in history for owner Massimo Tiberi. His restaurant occupies the site of the former Scalinatella restaurant, where he once worked as a bread boy. It’s also where his family held his baptism reception more than 30 years ago, when the place was known as Il Sole restaurant. Tiberi’s restaurant—named for his daughter—is a blend of old-world Italian and modern sophistication. Entrees include handmade oyster mushroom ravioli, braised pork shank in tomato sauce, and local pan-seared sea scallops, as well as classic Italian fare like handmade tagliatelle pasta prepared with veal, beef ragout, pancetta, and tomato and meatballs from a family recipe. Aria also offers a prix-fixe three-course meal designed by the restaurant’s culinary team.
255 Hanover St.
A North End staple since 1962, this intimate café is the perfect place to relax with an espresso and a cannoli. The café also offers an inventive cocktail list that includes a pistachio martini made with vanilla vodka, amaretto, Midori, and a scoop of pistachio gelato. All gelato is made on premise, and other flavors include tiramisu, nocciola (hazelnut), and zuppa inglese (a custard-based flavor with chocolate, cinnamon, and pieces of rum-soaked sponge cake). If gelato isn’t your thing, head to the back of the café and take a look at the dazzling pastry case, where you’ll find rum baba, frutta di bosco (a tart filled with sweet custard cream and topped with fresh berries), profiteroles, and more. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., Caffé Paradiso boasts a lively late-night scene.
257 Hanover St.
Established in the 1930s, Modern Pastry is a family-owned Italian bakery that has maintained its recipes and traditions for decades. Specializing in custom cakes, handmade cookies, and Italian delicacies, the bakery has earned a considerable following; it has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, National Geographic, and on the Food Network Christmas Special. Next time you stop by, try one of the shop’s famous cannoli or a piece of the ricotta pie (sweetened ricotta cheese baked in pasta frolla pastry dough). Certain specialties like the amaretto cake (two layers of Italian sponge cake soaked in rum and amaretto liquors and filled with creamy vanilla custard) are only available by ordering in advance. The seemingly endless options are guaranteed to please.
272 Hanover St.
There’s no better way to cool down on a hot summer day than with a refreshing gelato at GiGi Gelateria. Or stop by after dinner for a late-night treat—the shop is open until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Flavors change daily, so you can always count on a surprise. At any given time, there are several dozen from which to choose, among them passion fruit, black cherry, pistachio, and tiramisu. You can order at the window for takeaway or sit inside at one of the small round tables near the old-fashioned spinning cake display.
289 Hanover St.
This cash-only, no-frills pizzeria is the place to go if you’re searching for delicious Sicilian-style pizza. The huge slices—boasting a fluffy crust, sweet and tangy tomato sauce, and caramelized cheese—will set you back less than two dollars. The eatery does a great lunch business and operates with a “while supplies last” business model; it closes after everything is sold out, usually around 2 p.m. Be sure to try the panzerotti (creamy mashed potato balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, then dipped in egg and bread crumbs and deep-fried) or the arancini (fried risotto balls stuffed with ground beef, peas, and mozzarella).
300 Hanover St.
Any day of the week, you will find a line out the door at this landmark North End institution. Best known for its oversized and overstuffed cannoli, Mike’s Pastry serves the classic Italian dessert in a long list of flavors sure to please anybody with a sweet tooth. Gelati, cakes, and other pastries are also made fresh on the premises. Attracting tourists and locals alike, this bakery is the perfect way to top off a big Italian dinner. Just be prepared to order your sweets to go, because seating inside is limited. Also remember to bring cash—credit and debit cards are not accepted.
The Daily Catch
323 Hanover St.
For the freshest fish in town, visit the Daily Catch. With seating for just 20 and a kitchen in the dining area, the restaurant guarantees patrons an intimate culinary experience (and, quite possibly, a wait at the door). The Daily Catch has two other Boston locations, but Hanover Street is where it all began back in 1973. Try the Sicilian-style seafood and pasta, calamari salad, or shrimp and scallops off the quaint chalkboard menu. Be sure to bring cash because credit and debit cards are not accepted. If you are driving and park at the Parcel 7 lot, the restaurant will validate your ticket.
North Bennet Street School
150 North St.
Founded in 1885, the North Bennet Street School provided immigrants with the skills necessary to succeed in their new lives. Offering vocational training in pottery, sewing, printing, watch repair, sheet metal work, cabinetmaking, jewelry making, and carpentry, the school helped generations of immigrants become craftsmen and artisans. Today, the North Bennet Street School has a worldwide reputation and continues to train fledgling artisans and craftspeople, offering full-time programs in bookbinding, violin making and repair, piano technology, locksmithing and security technology, and more. You don’t have to be a full-time student to take part in the school’s excellent programs. Search the workshop calendar to register for one-time or short-term classes or lectures. Prices vary. There is also a gallery/store that is open to the public and features student, faculty, and alumni work. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., select Saturdays, and by appointment. Call 617-227-0155, ext. 140.
The Paul Revere House
19 North Square
The house that famed silversmith, American patriot, and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and his family lived in from 1770 to 1800 is the oldest building in downtown Boston. Built about 1680, it has housed many immigrants to the North End since Paul Revere inhabited it. In 1902, one of Revere’s great-grandsons bought the house to ensure its preservation. The Paul Revere Memorial Association was formed and, in 1908, the house was opened as one of the nation’s first historic house museums. Today, visitors can view a colonial garden, a 900-pound bell, and a bolt from the USS Constitution.
Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
One of Boston’s most significant landmarks, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is the city’s second-oldest cemetery, established in 1659. It is the resting place of many famous early Americans, including the ministers Cotton and Increase Mather, as well as numerous craftspeople, artisans, and merchants who lived in the North End during the 17th and 18th centuries. The British took advantage of the hill’s height to train their cannons on Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes in order to navigate the hill’s slight slope—it is definitely worth the trek. The top of Copp’s Hill Burying Ground offers a great view of downtown Boston and the Zakim Bridge.
North End Branch Library
25 Parmenter St.
The North End branch of the Boston Public Library offers more than just a great selection of books. Check out the online calendar of events to find listings for preschool story hours, book group discussions, live performances, and film screenings. Modeled after a Roman villa, with a central courtyard, high ceilings, and oversized windows, the building offers a relaxing spot to catch up on reading. Be sure you see the scale model of the Ducal Palace in Venice during your visit. The library also has a small Italian-language book collection.
11½ Thatcher St.
Now boasting more than a dozen locations between Massachusetts and Connecticut, this is the chain’s original pizzeria—a mainstay of the North End since 1926. The secret recipe pizza crust, covered with light and flavorful tomato sauce and all kinds of toppings, is sure to make your mouth water. A comprehensive wine and beer list accompanies the pizza menu and there is a sit-down bar in addition to the booths and tables. Regina Pizzeria has a cozy and nostalgic atmosphere, featuring a jukebox, colorful lighting, T-shirts hanging from the ceiling, and old pictures of staff members on the walls.
Maria’s Pastry Shop
46 Cross St.
Do you like lobster tail? No, not the seafood—we’re talking about Maria’s Pastry Shop’s specialty, a flaky shell filled with vanilla mousse. Or perhaps you’re more of a chocolate lover and would prefer to indulge in a chocolate torrone. Then again, if you’re from southern Italy, you may want a taste of your roots and order a sfogliatella—a traditional, flaky Neapolitan pastry shell filled with citrus fruit, semolina flour, and cheese. Whether you are in the mood for cookies, cakes, or fresh Italian pastries, Maria’s Pastry Shop has something for you. Some say they make the best cannoli in the North End. And while you’re there, be sure to look out for Cookie, the shop’s resident cat, often found lounging in the storefront window.
54 Salem St.
According to its website, at Vito’s Tavern the “old North End meets new North End in a sports lounge environment.” You can watch games on one of the restaurant’s six flat-screen TVs, but if you aren’t interested in sports, you can enjoy the oil paintings and memorabilia on display, mixed in with pictures of people (and pets) named Vito. Vito’s Tavern offers a few Italian dishes, but the menu is eclectic. Appetizers include egg rolls, taquitas, and lettuce wraps, to name a few. The tavern also offers burritos, tacos, wings, and burgers.
Shake the Tree
67 Salem St.
If you’re looking for a new funky outfit or need to buy a nice gift for a friend, it’s worth stopping by Shake the Tree. This charming boutique offers a diverse range of fun dresses, sweaters, scarves, and jewelry. It also has a variety of scented candles, lotions, perfumes, and soaps. For the kitchen, the store offers decorative dishes and glasses in addition to themed cookbooks. There is even a section for babies and young children, featuring plush animal toys. To complete your gift purchase, remember to pick up one of the store’s beautiful printed greeting cards before you leave.
69 Salem St.
There’s no such thing as too much pizza, right? Stop by Ernesto’s for a quick slice or a whole pie. The pizzas here are made with homemade dough and sauce, as well as freshly grated cheese. Portions are large, prices are reasonable, and the red, white, and green walls are decorated with old framed posters and pictures, giving the place a casual, vintage feel. The pizzeria’s staff is friendly and welcoming, even during the packed and hectic lunch hour.
105 Salem St.
Walk in to Polcari’s Coffee and your senses will immediately be overwhelmed with competing aromas. This small shop has far more than just coffee beans and tea. It also offers over 150 different spices, fresh-cut cheeses, dried fruits, whole nuts, sauces, beans, Italian candies, and fun sweets like licorice pipes. Try an obscure spice, indulge in some superb chocolate, and enjoy the soundtrack of fun tunes—one writer was fortunate enough to visit during Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Al Dente Ristorante
109 Salem St.
The extensive menu at Al Dente Ristorante will make your mouth water. Diners can choose from pasta, chicken, and seafood entrees. Start your meal with one of the restaurant’s award-winning appetizers. And if you are in the neighborhood some afternoon, take advantage of Al Dente’s special lunch menu, offering lower prices and a great Italian sandwich selection. This is also the place for a romantic evening outing: the walls are painted a warm orange, scenic paintings of Italy hang everywhere, and soothing Italian music plays in the background.
Old North Church
193 Salem St.
Built in 1723, the Old North Church is Boston’s oldest standing church. The building’s historical significance was sealed on the night of April 18, 1775, when church sexton Robert Newman climbed the steeple and held two lanterns as a signal to Paul Revere that British troops were advancing on nearby Concord and Lexington by sea, not by land. That event was later immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” (“One if by land, two if by sea”).
It’s well worth taking the 30-minute guided tour to get a firsthand look at the Old North Church’s rich history.
Visitors can climb the steeple stairs to the bell-ringing chamber where Paul Revere worked as a teenager. You can also walk through the church’s crypt and view the 37 tombs, constructed between 1732 and 1860, located below the church’s floors.
Also known as the Christ Church in the City of Boston (Episcopal), services are held each Sunday at 9 and 11 a.m. The 11 a.m. service has music by the church’s choir and is followed by a coffee hour. The church contains the oldest bells in North America (installed in 1745). Restored in 1975 for America’s Bicentennial, the bells can be heard each Sunday.
There is no admission charge to the church itself, but donations are welcome.
Take a walking tour of the North End to learn about and experience Italian food and cooking. Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours are three-hour adventures, with visits to a greengrocer, an authentic salumeria to find various olive oils, pastas, balsamic vinaigrettes, and imported cheeses, and various pasticcerias serving savory Italian pastries. Make sure to plan to eat lunch before or after the tour; specific Italian food ingredients will be provided for tasting, but lunch is not included. Tickets must be purchased in advance, either online or by phone (617-523-6032).
Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line to Government Center. Leaving the station, walk down the City Hall Plaza steps to your left, cross Congress Street, and continue down Hanover Street. The walk from Government Center should take about five minutes.
This story originally ran June 28, 2012; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to Boston’s North End.
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