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Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: The North End

A guide to eating, shopping, and sightseeing in Boston’s “Little Italy”

Unofficially known 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 has played an outsized role in the city’s cultural, historical, and gustatory history. Within convenient walking distance of Government Center, it’s Boston’s oldest residential area, with a history of European settlement stretching back to the early 17th-century Puritans.

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 inhabitants were Italian (with changing demographics, that’s down to about a third at present), and it had gained its reputation as Little Italy. Today it continues to be a popular destination for Bostonians and visitors from all over the globe seeking Italian cuisine. The neighborhood’s summer street festivals honoring revered saints attract crowds from throughout the area.

Boston’s popular Freedom Trail, which leads to significant American Revolution sites, wends its way through the North End to three historic destinations. And one of the most popular sections of the city’s extensive HarborWalk is here, 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 Writing Program master lecturer, who teaches a summer course about the social history of the North End. “This Italian presence is felt in the community groups, businesses, and on the streets, in the bocce games. It helps to promote community integrity and neighborliness.”

So visit the North End, with its more than 100 restaurants, cafés, and bakeries and numerous historical sites, to get a feel for the Italian community and the area’s history. The rustic Italian street signs, indicating imaginary routes to real Italian cities, give the area an even more authentic feel. BU Today has compiled a list of some of the best places to investigate, nosh, and shop when you visit.

Lit Boutique, 236 Hanover St.

LIT Boutique, 236 Hanover St.

Boston Public Market
100 Hanover St.

Now in its third year, the Boston Public Market gives shoppers a permanent year-round indoor market for fresh produce, meat and poultry, eggs, milk and cheese, fish, baked goods, and specialty and prepared foods. The market, featuring dozens of vendors that fill a 30,000-square-foot building at Haymarket Station, is open seven days a week. All the wares are locally sourced, with vendors from around New England. Among the food vendors are Crescent Ridge Dairy, from Sharon, Mass., with over 35 inventive ice cream flavors (try the popular Black Bear: raspberry ice cream with chocolate chips and chocolate-covered raspberry truffles). Another must-try: the fresh, hot cider donuts from the Phillipston, Mass., Red Apple Farm—their aroma fills the entire market. You’ll also find vendors selling handmade cutting boards and bowls, fresh flowers, yarn and other fibers, and more.

Improv Asylum
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 a bar if you want an adult beverage with your laughs. Student, military, and group discounts are available for all shows except Saturday’s. Most shows sell out in advance so purchasing tickets online or by phone is recommended. The club also offers professional improv and sketch-writing classes for adults and hosts several popular weekly performances, like Wednesday’s Vanity Project and the Friday midnight Show Against Humanity.

Parla
230 Hanover St.

Parla’s speakeasy décor makes it feel like it’s been around since Prohibition (it opened in 2014). The small Italian eatery’s unique menu is a departure from traditional Italian fare, with innovative pastas, appetizers, and even a section titled “(Biggie) Smalls.” Famous for its imaginative cocktail menu, it has more than 50 house-made shrubs, infusions, and tinctures. It’s open for dinner and cocktails daily and has a weekend Great Gatsby–themed brunch.

Interior of Parla

Parla, 230 Hanover St.

Tresca
233 Hanover St.

Legendary 21-season Boston Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004, opened this traditional Tuscan eatery in 2005. Tresca serves established Italian fare, has a large selection of antipasti (the roasted beet carpaccio is a standout), homemade pastas, and hard-to-find Italian wines. Pop in for “Tresca’s hat trick”—bolognese, veal parmesan, and Anna Maria’s famous stuffed meatballs.

LIT Boutique
236 Hanover St.

If you like to wear bright and colorful clothes, this boutique is sure to please. It carries a small but unique selection of women’s clothing, especially pants, dresses, shoes, and belts. With such designers as Mink Pink  and BCBGeneration, its prices lean toward the expensive. If you’re shopping on a budget, head to the sale rack in the back of the store.

Bricco Ristorante and Panetteria
241 Hanover St.

Distinguishing among the North End’s many Italian restaurants isn’t easy, but Bricco is a standout. It’s popular for its contemporary cuisine, an extensive, award-winning wine list, with vintners from California and Italy, and a late-night menu (brick-oven pizzas and innovative cocktails) Fridays and Saturdays from 11:30 pm to 2 am. Its aptly billed cooking style is “sophisticated ‘boutique’ Italian cuisine,” and you’ll find the traditional, like meatballs and shrimp scampi, as well as seafood, chops, and artisanal pastas. The desserts are superb. Be sure to try the crème brulee. Down a narrow alley at the rear stands a separate panetteria that sells fresh, delectable artisan bread daily. It was named Boston’s Best Bread Bakery in 2017.

Aria Trattoria
253 Hanover St., second floor

Aria Trattoria is steeped in history for owner Massimo Tiberi. It’s on the site of the former Scalinatella restaurant, where he once worked as a bread boy, and more than 30 years ago, when it was known as Il Sole restaurant, his family held his baptism reception there. The current restaurant—named for Tiberi’s daughter—is a blend of old-world Italian and modern sophistication. The menu changes with the seasons, but expect to find entrées like handmade gnocchi with lobster, braised pork shank in tomato sauce, and grilled local sea scallops, as well as classic Italian fare like handmade tagliatelle pasta prepared with veal, beef ragout, pancetta, and tomato sauce and meatballs from a family recipe. Aria also offers a prix-fixe three-course meal designed by its culinary team.

Caffé Paradiso
255 Hanover St.

A North End staple since 1962, this intimate café is a relaxing place to sit with an espresso and cannoli. Its inventive cocktail list includes a pistachio martini made with vanilla vodka, amaretto, Midori, and a scoop of pistachio gelato. All gelato is made on the premises, and among the flavors are tiramisu, nocciola (hazelnut), and zuppa inglese (a custard-based flavor with chocolate, cinnamon, and pieces of rum-soaked sponge cake). The back of the café has a dazzling pastry case, where you’ll find rum baba, frutta di bosco (a tart filled with sweet custard cream topped with fresh berries), profiteroles, and more. Open daily to 2 am, it has a lively late-night scene.

Modern Pastry

Modern Pastry, 257 Hanover St.

Modern Pastry
257 Hanover St.

Established in the 1930s, this family-owned Italian bakery has maintained its recipes and traditions for decades. Specializing in custom cakes, handmade cookies, and Italian delicacies, it has a considerable following and has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, National Geographic, even on a Food Network Christmas Special. Try one of the shop’s famous cannolis 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), have to be ordered in advance. You’ll  find something to please among the large array of items.

Modern Pastry also operates Modern Underground, a subterranean spot a few doors down from the bakery, at 263 Hanover St., serving simple pub fare like burgers, wings, and other quick bites before (or after) devouring a cannoli. It’s hard to find, so keep an eye out.

GiGi Gelateria
272 Hanover St.

Whether cooling down in summer with a refreshing gelato or stopping by after dinner for a late-night treat, Gigi Gelateria, open until midnight seven days a week, is the place to go. Flavors change daily, so count on a surprise. There are several dozen flavors to choose from, among them passion fruit, black cherry, pistachio, and tiramisu. Order at the window for takeout or sit inside at one of the tables near the old-fashioned spinning cake display.

Caffé Vittoria
290-296 Hanover St.

Caffé Vittoria, the oldest Italian café in Boston, is a must for anyone coming to the North End. Opened in 1929, this landmark has four levels, three liquor bars, and a cigar room lined with old-fashioned Italian espresso and coffee machines and memorabilia, giving the room an authentic Italian feel and a delicious aroma of coffee. Stop in for some coffee, pastries, or gelato, and  bring your camera, because this historic family-owned café is a must-see.

Caffé Vittoria interior

Caffé Vittoria, 290-296 Hanover St.

Galleria Umberto
289 Hanover St.

If you’re searching for delicious Sicilian-style pizza, this cash-only, no-frills pizzeria is for you. The huge slices—with their fluffy crust, sweet and tangy tomato sauce, and caramelized cheese—will set you back less than $2. It does a great lunch business, and its “while supplies last” business model means it closes after everything is sold, usually about 2 pm. Try the panzerotti (creamy mashed potato balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, dipped in egg and bread crumbs, and deep-fried) or the arancini (fried risotto balls stuffed with ground beef, peas, and mozzarella). The restaurant was recently honored with the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics Award.

Mike’s Pastry
300 Hanover St.

Any day of the week, you’ll find a line out the door at this 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. Gelati, cakes, and other pastries are made on the premises. Attracting tourists and locals alike, this bakery is an ideal way to top off a big Italian dinner. Be prepared to order your sweets to go, because seating inside is limited. Also remember to bring cash—no credit and debit cards accepted

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Mike’s Pastry, 300 Hanover St.

Scopa
319 Hanover St.

This intimate Italian spot, across from Mike’s Pastry, features rustic-style specialty pastas, pizzas, seafood, and cured meat and cheese platters. The food is decidedly lighter than many of its neighbors and decidedly less traditional. Think short ribs served with porcini truffle gnocchi and a Harvest risotto with sweet corn, chanterelles, and asparagus. The menu has just five pastas and five main entrées, but changes with the seasons.

The Daily Catch
323 Hanover St.

For the freshest fish in town, visit the Daily Catch. Seating for just 20 and a kitchen in the dining area guarantee patrons an intimate culinary experience (and quite possibly, a wait at the door). It 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 chalkboard menu. Bring cash because credit and debit cards are not accepted. If you are driving and park at the Parcel 7 lot, restaurant staff will validate your ticket.

Pomodoro
351 Hanover St.

With only eight tables, expect to wait at this cozy Italian eatery. But it’s worth it. It serves pastas, pizzas, and excellent seafood dishes, a highlight being the seafood fra diavola: clams, mussels, and white fish, accompanied by the restaurant’s famous tomato sauce, served over linguine. Other specialties: a mouthwatering veal scallopine and tiger shrimp in a white sauce. The owner and waiters are warm and friendly. There’s no coffee or dessert, but if you’re lucky, you can sample the complimentary tiramisu. It’s spectacular. Note: Pomodoro doesn’t take credit cards, so bring cash.

Rina’s Pizzeria
371 Hanover St.

A newer addition to Hanover Street, Rina’s is one of the Strega family of restaurants. It’s become popular for its Neapolitan-style pizza, made fresh in a special oven, built with traditional bricks from Italy, that can reach as high as 1,000 degrees. Also on the menu are calzones, paninis, and salads. The small storefront does a large takeout business, but if you eat in, you can watch classic black-and-white movies on one of the four televisions while you dine.

Rina's in the North End

Rina’s Pizzeria, 371 Hanover St. Photo by Olivia Nadel (COM’17)

North Bennet Street School
150 North St.

Founded in 1885, the North Bennet Street School gave immigrants the skills necessary to succeed in their new lives by providing vocational training in pottery, sewing, printing, watch repair, sheet metal work, cabinetmaking, jewelry making, and carpentry, helping generations become craftsmen and artisans. Today, the school has a worldwide reputation and continues to train fledgling artisans and craftspeople, with full-time programs in bookbinding, violin making and repair, piano technology, locksmithing, furniture making, and more. You don’t have to be a full-time student to take one of the 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, open to the public Monday to Friday, 9:30 am to 3 pm, and by appointment at 617-227-0155, ext. 140, featuring student, faculty, and alumni work.

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 around 1680, it has housed many immigrants to the North End since Paul Revere lived there. 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. The museum is open year-round (closed on Mondays in the winter) and offers a student discount.

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
Hull Street

One of Boston’s most significant landmarks, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is the city’s second-oldest cemetery, established in 1659, 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. Wear comfortable shoes to navigate the slight slope—the top offers a great view of downtown Boston and the Zakim Bridge, and is definitely worth the trek.

North End Branch Library
25 Parmenter St.

This Boston Public Library branch offers more than just a great selection of books. Check out the online calendar of events to find listings for toddler and baby storytime 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 is a relaxing spot to catch up on reading. Be sure to see the scale model of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The library also has a small Italian-language book collection.

Regina Pizzeria
11½ Thatcher St.

Now with more than a dozen locations in 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, like the specially aged whole milk mozzarella, will bring you back. There’s a comprehensive wine and beer list and a sit-down bar in addition to the booths and tables. Its cozy and nostalgic atmosphere has colorful lighting, sports paraphernalia, and old pictures of staff members on the walls. Check out the full menu, featuring nearly 30 different pizzas, here.

Regina Pizza, 11½ Thatcher St.

Regina Pizza, 11½ Thatcher St.

Maria’s Pastry Shop
46 Cross St.

Do you like lobster tail? No, not the seafood—we’re talking about this pastry shop’s specialty, a flaky shell filled with vanilla mousse. Or perhaps you’re more of a chocolate lover and would prefer 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, this shop has something for you. It’s said the best cannolis in the North End are made here.

Vito’s Tavern 
54 Salem St.

Vito’s bills itself as the best sports bar in the neighborhood and on game night, “the old North End meets the new North End.” You can watch games on one of the eight flat-screen TVs, or you can sit back and enjoy the oil paintings and sports memorabilia on display. The menu is eclectic, but does have a few Italian dishes. Appetizers include meatball sliders, steak bomb egg rolls, and lettuce wraps, to name a few. The tavern also serves burritos, tacos, wings, and burgers.

Shake the Tree
67 Salem St.

If you’re looking for a new outfit or need to buy a nice gift for a friend, stop by this charming boutique, with its diverse range of fun dresses, sweaters, scarves, and jewelry. It also has a variety of scented candles, lotions, perfumes, and soaps. For the kitchen, there are decorative dishes, barware, and cookbooks. There is even a section for babies and young children, featuring plush animal toys. One of the store’s beautiful printed greeting cards will complete your gift.

Ernesto’s
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 are made with homemade dough and sauce, and freshly grated cheese. Portions are large, prices are reasonable, and the walls are decorated with old framed posters and pictures, giving the place a casual, vintage feel. The staff is friendly and welcoming, even during the packed and hectic lunch hour.

Crudo

Crudo, 78 Salem St.

Crudo
78 Salem St.

If Italian cuisine isn’t your favorite, head over to this sushi and sake joint for lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch (there’s also a full bar). You’ll find classic sushi as well as some surprising entrées like the lobster taco. The brunch menu is a blend of traditional (French toast and eggs) and the unique (a pickled rice hot pot).

Polcari’s Coffee
105 Salem St.

Step into Polcari’s Coffee and your senses will be overwhelmed with competing aromas. This small shop sells more than just coffee beans and tea. You’ll find over 150 different spices, fresh-cut cheeses, dried fruits, whole nuts, sauces, beans, Italian candies, and fun sweets like licorice chips. Try an obscure spice, indulge in some excellent chocolate, and enjoy the soundtrack of fun tunes. The shop has been a North End mainstay since 1932.

Polcari's

Polcari’s

Al Dente Ristorante
109 Salem St.

The extensive menu here will tantalize you. Choose from pasta, chicken, and seafood entrées and start your meal with one of the award-winning appetizers, like the lobster ravioli or eggplant rollatini. The restaurant prides itself on serving specialty dishes from all regions of Italy. This is also the place for a romantic evening out: 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”).

The church attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year. It’s well worth taking the 30-minute guided tour to get a firsthand look at the Old North Church’s fascinating history. Visitors can climb the steeple stairs to the bell-ringing chamber where Paul Revere worked as a teenager and walk through the church’s crypt and view the 37 tombs, constructed between 1732 and 1860, below the church’s floors.

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Old North Church, 193 Salem St.

Also known as the Christ Church in the City of Boston (Episcopal), services are held each Sunday at 9 and 11 am. The 11 am service has music by the church’s choir. The church contains the oldest bells in North America (installed in 1745 and restored in 1975 for America’s Bicentennial), and they’re rung each Sunday. The church recently started charging an admission fee ($8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors, $4 for children) to help pay for upkeep.

Market Tours

Want to learn about and experience Italian food and cooking? Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours are three-hour culinary 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. 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, so check the calendar or call 617-523-6032.

Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line to Government Center, walk down the City Hall Plaza steps to your left, cross Congress Street, and continue down Hanover Street, about a five-minute walk.


Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to Boston’s North End.

This story originally ran June 28, 2012; it has been updated to include new locations and current information.