First a cinnamon stick, next a piece of ginger: Each person sniffed, breathed deeply and then passed along the spice. Twelve of us lined up in Polcari's, a narrow, aromatic corner shop selling coffee beans and spices on Boston's Salem Street since 1932, as tour guide Angela Denstad explained the medicinal properties of various products.
At first, no one noticed the long loaf of Italian bread overstuffed with tens and twenties being carried from one end of the counter to the other. Just the storekeepers, two young guys in baseball hats, having a little fun with a money sandwich on a Saturday afternoon.
Not your standard tour fare, and it was making me hungry.
Looking for a different way to explore the cobbled streets of the North End, the Italian enclave bounded by Commercial, North, North Washington and Congress streets, my friends and I decided to enlist professional help. Four of the five of us have lived in Boston in recent years -- two still do -- yet our culinary knowledge of the neighborhood was, no joke, limited to Mike's Pastry and late-night loaves of semolina bread from Bova's, the 24-hour bakery on Salem Street.
North End Market Tours, the brainchild of Michele Topor, a neighborhood fixture for the past 35 years, seemed ideal for those of us who prize eating above most other pursuits. And, we realized, a market tour is particularly appropriate for exploring Boston's oldest residential area, the home of Old North Church and that two-if-by-sea guy. There's no supermarket in this compact Old World neighborhood of narrow roads and slender sidewalks: Life happens on the streets and in the shops.
Trained as a chef in Italy and the United States, nurse-turned-tour leader Topor designed her admittedly subjective tours to reflect where she shops. In recent years, three assistants have been hired to keep up with demand, including Denstad, a North End resident for the past eight years; the assistants' observations stem from a verbatim account of the tours Topor leads herself.
Boston's North End has not gone the way of New York's Little Italy, an increasingly small patch of turf overshadowed by Chinatown and frequented mostly by tourists. The North End attracts its share of visitors while still maintaining its identity as a true neighborhood for those who live there. Initially home to properous Bostonians, it became a village of working-class immigrants. First it was the Irish, then the Eastern European Jews who settled in the North End, but since the 1900s, it has been the Italian population that gives the neighborhood its predominant flavor. Local Catholic societies, while dwindling in number, still take over the main streets most summer weekends with Feast Day celebrations, and the majority of the restaurants are Italian.
On Boston Harbor and essentially set apart from the rest of Beantown when a six-lane elevated highway went up in the 1950s, it has just recently been reconnected with the city through the demolition of the Central Artery, part of the ongoing Big Dig project. In fact, were it not for the tour, the construction might have made us miss Maria's at 46 Cross St., where they'll sell you the cannoli pastry shell and the sweet cream to fill it with once you get home. Take a seat -- this is the one tour location with enough room for chairs -- and taste the magnificent sfogliatelle (clam-shaped pastries filled with ricotta) and marzipan and both soft and toasted biscotti, all in the name of cultural research.
Outside Alba Produce at 18 Parmenter St., we snapped fave fresche, (broad fava beans), chomped crisp fennel and watched locals (we knew them by their cloth grocery bags) pick the produce they wanted. There's no touching at Alba's: You point, and Bruce Alba or his employee puts it in your basket. We took up the entire sidewalk, but no one seemed to mind, certainly not Alba himself, who came out to chat. A bird-like old woman dressed in widow's black shuffled inside as a twenty-something with a upturned polo collar and hung-over gaze passed by, perhaps en route to one of the cafes on Hanover for brunch.
Male eggplants, I learned, are less bitter than female. (And speaking of eggplant . . . Denstad claims that if you see any parm other than eggplant on a local menu, you're eating at an Italian American, not a straight-up Italian, restaurant. Adding meat to create something like chicken parmigiano "is a classic adaptation of the cucina povera, the cooking of the poor," for the American palate, she said. Just so you know.)
Walking at a good clip (perhaps the only people in the neighborhood doing so), we tasted the difference between Mediterranean and Chinese pine nuts at Dairy Fresh Candies (57 Salem St.), stopped into Giuffre's Fish Market (71 Salem St.), run by the same family for more than 100 years, and stood outside the Abruzzese Meat Market (94 Salem St.), where each piece is cut to order. Every few paces it seemed as if there was someone calling out to Denstad, checking on how things were going with her new baby, just saying hi.
At the Salumeria Italiana at 151 Richmond St., she passed a platter with layer after layer of crucolo (a pale yellow cow's milk cheese), ricotta salata (semi-soft sheep's milk cheese), mortadella (the true bologna) and rolled salami, the last two of which I passed up with an apologetic, "I'm vegetarian." "My friend's daughter's one of those," one of the group offered with apparent sympathy before going back for seconds.
We stood in a rough circle, hands outstretched with small (too small!) tasting spoons at the ready as Denstad walked from person to person pouring out a few precious drops of a private label aged balsamic vinegar so sweet, tangy and thick you'd never think of wasting it on a table dressing. Try a few spoonfuls of it over fresh strawberries in midsummer, Denstad suggested, or as a light drizzle over some mozzzarella di bufala and roughly chopped vine-ripened tomatoes.
After a liquor lesson and a parting shot of limoncello at V. Cirace & Son (173 North St.), my friends and I beelined back to the salumeria to pick up the makings of the perfect picnic. Standing next to me was an older man with thick black-rimmed glasses who, from the welcome from behind the counter, spent quite a bit of time there. Following his lead, we picked out a sundried tomato and olive antipasto, fresh bread and boccocini and some more ricotta salata.
As we anted up, the saleswoman caught me eyeing a bottle on the counter. She motioned me over, poured me another spoonful of the stellar Rubio and answered my thanks with a slight nod and a shrug. Something tells me this happens often.