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The Italian heart of town

With the Big Dig dust settled, trendy mixes with traditional in an accessible North End

Visitors hungry for a taste of the old North End can find it in Lucia Ristorante and Bar's marinara.
Visitors hungry for a taste of the old North End can find it in Lucia Ristorante and Bar's marinara. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
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It is a warm, weekday afternoon in early fall, and Hanover Street is abuzz with activity. Trucks double park, unloading cases of wine and crates of vegetables for the restaurants lining the street as gelato-eating tourists saunter past elderly gents sipping espresso and bantering in Italian.

Off the main thoroughfare, where flowers bloom in boxes along narrow, cobblestone streets and scents of garlic, pecorino, and cured meats waft from the open doorways of small salumerias, one can be forgiven for indulging in the fantasy of having traveled to a small town in Italy.

After years of dust, noise, and upheaval caused by the Big Dig project, the North End is once again an accessible treasure. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway makes it easy to navigate from the Haymarket subway terminal to Cross Street and from there to Hanover, which stretches like a spine to the waterfront.

While the city's construction project was transforming the surrounding landscape, the North End, home to the Old North Church and Paul Revere's house along the Freedom Trail, also was changing. Known for decades as a neighborhood where pizza and pasta with red sauce ruled supreme, the North End is now home to a number of sophisticated eateries and fashionable boutiques. On a menu, you are as apt to find artichoke-pecorino ravioli topped with a cream of langoustine condiment as spaghetti with meatballs.

But those who loved the old North End should not despair. The neighborhood has managed to preserve its identity while expanding its repertoire to include the upscale and trendy. Restaurants may now have large windows that open to the street - rather than dark interiors with Chianti bottles overhead - but you still find places like the Caffe dello Sport, with Italian soccer team schedules taped to the cash register, two big-screen TVs to catch the action, and cappuccino topped with schiuma perfetta.

Eating well is a hallmark of the North End. You may spend a little or a lot but you won't be hungry when you leave.

The line stretches from the counter out the door most days at Galleria Umberto. Open for lunch only, this cavernous, no-frills operation has been in business since 1973. The pizza is Sicilian-style: large pans of bubbling cheese with sauce cut into squares. The arancini (deep-fried rice balls stuffed with meat and cheese) are the size of candlepin bowling balls and the yam-shaped panzarotti (deep-fried breaded mashed potatoes with cheese and herbs) are surprisingly light and fluffy.

Of course every return visitor has his or her own favorite pizza. Christine Scannell of Topsfield, a self-described "pizza snob," swears by the more than 30 varieties of pies at Ernesto's Pizzeria on Salem Street.

"This is it for me. I absolutely love it," said Scannell, who was eating a slice while her to-go order sat on the table. "I have to bring some home for my son. If he finds out I stopped here without him he'll get mad."

If these establishments represent old-world style, the new can be found a few doors down on Salem Street at Neptune Oyster. So what if the white tile and dark wood interior feels more like a bistro than a trattoria? The changing varieties of oysters and shellfish at the raw bar are as fresh as the sea, and the chowder, fried clams, lobster roll, and half dozen entrees feature local ingredients.

If you prefer a linguine marinara or fettuccini Alfredo served beneath a ceiling painted to resemble Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, head to Lucia Ristorante and Bar. The Frattaroli family has owned this establishment for more than 30 years, and even with recent renovations it still offers pre-Big Dig charm.

More regional menus can be found at Trattoria il Panino, which features Amalfi Coast Mediterranean cuisine, and at Taranta where chef Jose Duarte combines Southern Italian and Peruvian cuisines to perfection.

Sweet tooth? North End bakeries and cafes are abundant.

Open from 6 a.m. till midnight, Caffe Vittoria has been serving customers in its elegant Hanover Street space since 1929. At its small round tables it's easy to linger over coffee, gelato (including pistachio, ciccolata, hazelnut), and pastries (including cannoli, sfogliatelle, rum baba) while sipping a Campari or grappa.

On a sunny day, get your order to go from Maria's Pastry Shop and sit near the fountains along the Greenway. Less celebrated than others on the strip, this unassuming bakery is where locals go for homemade, authentic Italian cakes, cookies, candies, breads, and confections such as pasticiotti, mini pies with either vanilla cream or sweetened ricotta filling. (Don't forget to ask for powdered sugar on top.)

One of the more noticeable changes in this area is the number of boutiques selling clothes, jewelry, shoes, and gifts. The mix of old and new in the North End suits the sensibility at The Velvet Fly, where owners Beth Ann Hoyos and Lorrinda Cerrutti sell a combination of vintage and modern dresses, shirts, coats, bags, and shoes at affordable prices.

"The old neighborhood is mixing in with the new. There's a lot of energy. Everyone knows everyone," said Hoyos.

"This is one of the few parts of the city with a real neighborhood character. It has old world charm and new world flair," said Cerrutti.

Farther down the street, Merilee Wolfson sells eclectic jewelry from all over the world at High Gear Jewelry. One of the first boutiques in the area, the space doubled when Wolfson moved to Hanover Street three years ago. Look for the Trend Board featuring stories about the newest hip jewelry designs.

"I try and get ahead of everyone else. For example, links are huge right now. And purple is big this year. If it's 'in' we've got it," said Wolfson.

Open since 1932, Polcari's Coffee is less a boutique and more a local institution. Walking inside is like stepping back in time: The floor is part wood and part linoleum, and the wood and metal shelves overflow with 150 spices, dried legumes, rice, grains, over a dozen types of flour, 27 varieties of coffee, bulk teas, oils, vinegars, pasta, stove-top coffee pots, and sets of espresso cups. Robert Eustace, whose mother was born in the North End, is more than happy to answer questions - in Italian or English - about his products and the neighborhood.

To bring a little piece of Italy home, head to Salumeria Italiana. Open for more than 40 years, this small storefront on Richmond Street is filled with aromas of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses, cured meats, and 14 varieties of olives. Nonperishable items include imported olive oils, aged balsamic vinegars, canned tomatoes, peppers, coffee, honey, preserves, and seemingly endless varieties of pastas.

Though all-things-Italian dominate the landscape, it wasn't always so. As North End Secret Tours guide and resident Guild Nichols may remind you, the history of the area stretches back to the 1600s. Since then, waves of immigrants moved through as fortunes rose and fell and rose again: from the Puritans and early Anglicans, through a time when the area was called the "Murder District," through an influx of Irish, the arrival of Eastern European Jews, to the 1860s when the first Italian immigrants settled here.

Last, and certainly not least, the North End lies along the Freedom Trail, which includes the Old North Church (of "One if by land, two if by sea" fame), Copp's Hill Burying Ground, and Paul Revere House, which is the only remaining example of 17th-century architecture in downtown Boston.

In the house is a replica of an early kitchen, with apple slices strung across the hearth to dry and a piece of (faux) meat waiting to be grilled. After contemplating such a meager meal, and the North End's humble beginnings, it was heartening to know that the vitality, charm, and culinary delights of Italy were waiting just outside the door.

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to eat

Galleria Umberto

289 Hanover St.

617-227-5709

Lunch $1.25-$2.50.

Ernesto's Pizzeria

69 Salem St.

617-523-1373

ernestosnorthend.com

Slices $3.50-$4.50.

Neptune Oyster

63 Salem St.

617-742-3474

neptuneoyster.com

$13.50-$34.

Lucia Ristorante and Bar

415 Hanover St.

617-367-2353

luciaboston.com

Entrees $13-$33.

Trattoria il Panino

11 Parmenter St.

617-720-1336

trattoriailpanino.com

Entrees $18.95-$29.95.

Taranta

210 Hanover St.

617-720-0052

tarantarist.com

Entrees $19-$36.

Caffe Vittoria

290-296 Hanover St.

617-227-7606

vittoriacaffe.com

Sweets $3.50-$5.50.

Caffe dello Sport

308 Hanover St.

617-523-5063

caffedellosport.us

Sweets $2-$5.50.

Maria's Pastry Shop

46 Cross St.

617-523-1196

northendboston.com/marias

Sweets $2.50-$3.50.

Where to shop

The Velvet Fly

424 Hanover St.

617-557-4359

thevelvetfly.com

High Gear Jewelry

204 Hanover St.

617-523-5804

Polcari's Coffee

105 Salem St.

617-227-0786

northendboston.com/polcaricoffee

Salumeria Italiana

151 Richmond St.

800-400-5916, 617-523-8743

salumeriaitaliana.com

What to do

North End Secret Tours

617-720-2283

northendsecrettours.com

Friday and Saturday, $30.

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