At a certain time of day, the North End can trick you. You're hurrying down a side street on the way to a restaurant and suddenly the fading sun turns worn brick to gold. An elderly woman in a blue housedress ducks into a basement produce shop on Parmenter Street where fava beans and asparagus are on display. Two men sit over espresso at a sidewalk table, voluble Italian spilling into the street. You could be in the Old World, as time stops for a moment in one of Boston's oldest neighborhoods.
Once cut off from the rest of the city by the now-underground Central Artery, the North End has been home to successive waves of immigrants -- from the early colonial settlers to Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews to Italian Catholics. Though today the compact area -- it's less than a square mile -- has seen gentrification and newer immigrants, the Italian stamp remains, especially evident in its food. Anthony Susi, chef and owner of Sage on Prince Street, grew up a few blocks away in a brick building on Hanover Street, the apartments on each floor occupied by his extended family. As he walks through its streets, he calls out greetings and exchanges handshakes every block or so.
For most of Boston and beyond, the North End means restaurants -- 50 to 100, depending on if takeout sandwiches and pizza slices are included. Once, most restaurants were predominantly red-sauce places with hearty, tomato-heavy immigrant dishes. But like several of the neighborhood's other chefs, Susi -- as famous for his New American creations as for his light potato gnocchi -- uses an Italian sensibility to create an eclectic cuisine. His little restaurant (only 28 seats) is packed most nights, and he and Sage have won national recognition. Other favorites in this dining mecca include such places as Terramia, Bricco, Maurizio's, and Artu.
On a warm day, Salem Street is crowded with residents and tourists. Traffic clogs the streets: "This is where I learned to drive," Susi says, smiling when a delivery truck swerves close to pedestrians. We duck into Abruzzese Meat Market, where Susi's father, Frank, is weighing veal loins for Christopher Bussell, chef of the nearby Terramia. Frank Susi has owned this shop for 42 years, and its worn butcher block, the sawdust on the floor, and the postcards from the 1960s taped to the walls attest to its age. "I sell a little bit of everything," he says, adding that his customers include several generations.
"This is where I come for my sugar fix," says Anthony Susi, as he heads into the back room of Dairy Fresh Candies, a gleaming cornucopia of nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, candy, and Italian olive oils and coffee. John Reilly, one of the owners, says the shop, which has been open since 1957, sells lots of chocolate in the months leading up to Christmas. Now "because of the Atkins craze, nuts are the big seller," he says, pointing out five different varieties of almonds.
"I'm usually here late mornings," Susi says of Caffe Graffiti, an espresso bar on Hanover Street. The front of the cafe is open to the street on a fine day, and one of the owners, Luigi DeMarco, is standing outside chatting with customers and passersby. "The best coffee in the neighborhood, and the best smile," Susi says as he shakes DeMarco's hand. DeMarco, whose family has owned the cafe for 14 years, says it takes good people and good ambience to be successful. "I know 80 percent of the people who walk through this door," he says, as two women behind him converse over little cups of espresso.
The imposing dark brick of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on North Square off Hanover Street bears a handwritten sign: "Save Sacred Heart Church. Keep Our Faith Alive." This is where his parents have always gone to church, Susi says, and it's one of the few in the area where Mass is still said in Italian. The church, which after recent church closings is going to be preserved as a chapel, is closed on a weekday, but a few pupils with their parents are walking away from St. John's Parochial School next door. Across the square, schoolchildren on a tour congregate on the little grassy island in front of the church, hearing the story of Paul Revere's ride to Concord before they go to see the Colonial hero's dark-timbered house.
Susi strides into Tutto Italiano, a specialty cheese and Italian products store on Fleet Street, greeting the owner and checking out fresh mozzarella made that morning. Joseph Locilanto, who owns this shop with his family, also sells Susi prosciutto, mascarpone, and gorgonzola cheeses. The two talk about Basilicata, where the owner's family comes from, and the olive oil made there. As we leave, Susi says that, as a child, he was allowed only as far down Hanover as Fleet Street where we're standing. "I had to be within yelling distance when my mother called out the window," he says.
"Locals call this the Prado," Susi says as we head into Paul Revere Mall, a long corridor lined with trees and flowers. A statue of Revere astride his horse stands in
the center of the park with historic Old North Church in the background, a natural for tourist photographs over the years. A fountain splashes before the entrance to the church, and children's voices can be heard from a nearby playground. The park is shady and quiet in midday, away from crowded Hanover Street.
There's just one last stop: a little greenspace, the Charter Street Playground. "Here's where we played ball when we were kids," he says. His family's garden is beyond the fence, and as he points out the vegetables and his mother's flowers, a face appears. "Tony," calls out Susi's grandmother, waving from her third-floor window. Grandson and grandmother exchange greetings, melodious Italian wafting through the air.
Alison Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.