Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: The North End
A guide to eating, shopping, and sightseeing in Boston’s “Little Italy”
Unofficially referred to as Boston’s “Little Italy,” the North End is one of the Hub’s smallest neighborhoods (just three quarters of a mile in size), but it has played an outsized role in the city’s cultural, historical, and gustatory history. Conveniently located within walking distance of Government Center and Boston Harbor, it is the Boston’s oldest residential area. Its history stretches back to the early 17th century, when the Puritans settled there. 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, 99.9 percent of the neighborhood’s inhabitants were Italian. (That number is now about a third.) By the 20th century, 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 all over the Boston area.
“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 lecturer in the Writing Program, who taught 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.
216 Hanover St.
One of Boston’s most storied comedy clubs, Improv Asylum, featuring improvisation and sketch comedy, has been providing laughs and entertainment since 1998. There are shows every night except Monday, and there is a bar for those who enjoy an adult beverage with their laughs. The club also offers professional improv and sketch writing classes for adults and improv classes for children ages 9 to 17. Improv Asylum has its own television show, called Improv Asylum’s Vanity Project, which airs on WCVB (Channel 5).
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. The prices lean toward the expensive, so if you are shopping on a budget, head to the back of the store, where you’ll find a 50 percent off sale rack. Carrying designers such as Glam, Magnolia, Skunk Funk, and more, even a small purchase can set you back more than $100.
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 an amaretto (two layers of Italian sponge cake soaked in rum and amaretto liquors and filled with creamy vanilla custard) or a ricotta pie (sweetened ricotta cheese baked in pasta frolla pastry dough). 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 some refreshing gelato at GiGi Gelateria. Or stop by after dinner for a late night treat—the shop is open until midnight every day. Flavors change day to day, so you can always count on a surprise. At any given time, there are several dozen flavors to choose from, 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.
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 cannolis, Mike’s Pastry serves the Italian delicacies in a long list of flavors sure to please anybody with a sweet tooth. Gelato, 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 the 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. Order some Sicilian-style seafood and pasta off the quaint chalkboard menu. Offering 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 shrimp and scallops, calamari salad, or homemade squid ink (black) pasta. Most entrées are between $18 and $22. If you are driving and park at the Parcel 7 lot, the restaurant will validate your ticket.
189 North St.
This store’s name says it all—Eclectic hosts a hodgepodge of fun and random items. Many pieces are sea-themed, including an antique paddle, beach bags, and lobster-themed plates. Other unique household items include stools, picture frames, and pillows as well as hand-blown hourglasses filled with colored sand.
The Paul Revere House
19 North Square
The house that famed silversmith and American 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 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. Admission is $3.50 for adults and $3 for students with a valid ID.
Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
One of Boston’s most significant landmarks, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is the city’s second oldest burying ground, 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 height of the hill to train their cannons on Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes because of the hill’s slight slope, but it is definitely worth the trek. The top of the Burying Ground hill 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 high, sloping ceilings and oversized windows, the building offers a relaxing spot to catch up on reading. Be sure you see the diorama 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 New Hampshire, this is the chain’s original—a mainstay of the North End since 1926. The secret recipe pizza crust, topped 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 Pizza 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 the Maria’s Pastry specialty 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 decide to order a sfogliatelle—a traditional 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. And while you’re there, be sure to look out for Cookie, the shop’s resident cat, often found lounging in the storefront window.
Dip It Sweet
94 Endicott St.
Are you up for a challenge? What if the challenge calls for eating 28 scoops of ice cream with multiple toppings, all within 35 minutes? If your answer is yes, then head to Dip It Sweet, a small, window-service takeout ice cream shop offering 38 flavors. Complete the challenge and you will get your picture taken and placed on the eatery’s wall of fame, be reimbursed for the ice cream, walk away with a free T-shirt, and have your name published in the local newspaper. If you lose, however, your picture will be posted on the shop’s wall of shame. All ice cream is from Richardson’s Ice Cream in Middleton, Mass. Mention this article, and you’ll get $1 off your next purchase.
54 Salem St.
According to its website, Vito’s Tavern is where the “old North End meets the new North End”—“in a sports lounge environment.” You can watch games on one of the restaurant’s six-flat screen TVs. If you aren’t interested in sports, you can enjoy the oil paintings or pictures of people named Vito hanging on the walls. Vito’s Tavern has a few Italian dishes on the menu, but largely strays from typical North End offerings; jalapeno poppers, truffle salted French fries, Korean-style fried wings, fried fish tacos, and Ahi tuna burgers are among the nontraditional choices.
Shake the Tree
67 Salem St.
If you’re looking for a new funky outfit or if you need to buy a nice present for a friend, it’s well worth stopping by Shake the Tree. This charming boutique offers an eclectic 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 out 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. Ernesto’s uses homemade dough and sauce, as well as freshly grated cheese, for all of its pizzas. Portions are large, prices are reasonable ($3.75 for a giant cheese slice and up to $5 for a giant slice with topping), 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 of Italian pasta, chicken, and seafood at Al Dente Ristorante will make your mouth water. 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. Dinner entrées range from about $12 to $27. This is the place for a romantic outing: the walls are painted a warm orange, scenic paintings of Italy hang everywhere, and 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. For $5, 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, below the church’s floors.
Officially known today as Christ Church in the City of Boston, services are held each Sunday at 9 and 11 a.m., with an evening service each Thursday at 6 p.m. The church contains the oldest bells in North America (installed in 1745). Restored in 1975 in preparation for America’s Bicentennial, the bells can be heard each Saturday morning.
There is no admission charge to the church itself, but donations are welcome.
North Bennet Street School
39 North Bennet 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 craftsmen, 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. Gallery hours vary, and it’s best to call first if you’re planning a visit. Phone: 617-227-0155, ext. 110.
Take a walking tour of the North End to learn about and experience Italian food and cooking. Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours is a three-hour adventure, 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 your lunch for 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 (800-979-3370). Tours cost $50 plus tax.
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.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to Boston’s North End.
Have a suggestion for a neighborhood you would like to see featured on BU Today? Leave it in the comments section below.
Andreia DeVries can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was originally published on June 28, 2012.2 Comments