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North End vs. Federal Hill: Smackdown

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / January 22, 2012
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Boston’s North End and Providence’s Federal Hill have been the Little Italies of their respective cities for well over a century, yet the two neighborhoods could not look more different. The North End was already a 250-year-old warren of twisting, narrow streets when Italians began arriving in the 1880s. Federal Hill, by contrast, began as a circa-1800 planned grid of broad streets opposite the old Colonial city. Despite population shifts and creeping gentrification, the aromas of garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes still drift from many doorways, and each neighborhood retains its own twist on Italian character. Here’s how they stack up on some essentials.

PARKING

North End: A quarter buys you 12 minutes - if you can find an open meter. Most street parking is reserved for residents, and the lots and garages can get pricey.

Federal Hill: On-street parking, even on the main drag of Atwells Avenue, is free for two hours at a stretch. Then you have to move the car to another spot.

Advantage: Providence. Save those quarters for an espresso.

PIZZA

North End: Pizza comes and pizza goes, but Regina Pizzeria (11 1/2 Thacher St., 617-227-0765, www.reginapizzeria.com) is forever. Well, since 1926. Brick-oven American-style pizza is rarely this good and the tiny spot oozes neighborhood charm. Sit at the bar where you can watch the pizzaiolas at work.

Federal Hill: Providence is famous for grilled pizza a la Al Forno (other side of town), but purists revere Neapolitan-style thin crust pizza. Stylish Zooma Trattoria (245 Atwells Ave., 401-383-2002, www.trattoriazooma.com) uses imported “00’’ flour to make Naples-style pies with a crust that is soft, chewy, and sauce-proof.

Advantage: Providence, by a hair. Neapolitan pizza is hard to find.

DESSERT EXCESS

North End: It sometimes seems that half the people on Hanover Street are toting a blue-and-white box from Mike’s Pastry (300 Hanover St., 617-742-3050, www.mikespastry.com) and chances are the boxes are filled with cannoli. Mike’s offers more than a dozen cannoli fillings, including almond, hazelnut, limoncello, chocolate ricotta, pistachio, espresso, peanut butter, and strawberry.

Federal Hill: Nancy’s Fancies (294 Atwells Ave. 401-421-2253, www.nancysfanciescakes.com) offers cannoli, of course, but the shop excels at gourmet cupcakes. Sample flavor combos (Oreo cheesecake, lemon meringue, coconut dream, among others) are displayed, but you can also select your favorite flavor of cake, filling, frosting, and topping, and watch while a custom cupcake is created before your eyes.

Advantage: Providence. Mike’s has the lines, but Nancy’s has the showmanship.

QUICK LUNCH

North End: Galleria Umberto (289 Hanover St., 617-227-5709), the busiest lunch place in the neighborhood, closes by 2:30 p.m. But in a few short hours it serves up countless orders of arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat ragu and mushy peas); calzones filled with various combinations of spinach, sausage, and cheeses; pizza slices; and the smaller variant of calzones known as panzarotti. Cash only.

Federal Hill: Roma (310 Atwells Ave., 401-331-5000, www.romaprov.com) is a market that moonlights as an evening trattoria. Pizza and calzones are a big part of the lunch menu, but Roma is known for its “Famous Original Italian Grinder.’’ This Dagwood-worthy sandwich features capocollo, salami, ham, mortadella, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, hot peppers, red onion, and sliced olives.

Advantage: Boston. Everyone from construction workers to well-dressed older women on a nostalgia trip back to the old neighborhood line up at Galleria Umberto.

FASHION AND STYLE

North End: Bling! of Boston (236A Hanover St., 857-366-4620, www.blingofboston.com) specializes in re-creations of baubles worn by movie stars and other trend-setters. The shop also has a selection of contemporary jewelry and Kate Middleton-inspired clutch bags at affordable prices.

Federal Hill: Father and son designers (Michael and Michael Turner) at The Divas Palace (299 Atwells Ave., 401-834-0148) have an eye for glam clothes with such high-fashion details as a lamb vest with fox trim, or a lace-patterned trench coat. Jewelry hits the same high note - just right for going out to be seen.

Advantage: Providence. You won’t find the Turner originals anywhere else.

WINE & LIQUEURS

North End: You can buy good Italian wines in any mainstream liquor store, but it’s harder to find digestives and grappas to conclude an Italian meal. In addition to a huge selection of mostly northern Italian wines, V. Cirace & Son (173 North St., 617-227-3193, www.vcirace.com) has one of the largest selections of grappas and aquavitae in the country. The family business, founded in 1906, developed the Herbe di Amalfi brand of herb- and flower-infused liqueurs, and even has its own brand of limoncello.

Federal Hill: Antonio Gasbarro got an eight-year jump on the Cirace family, establishing Gasbarro’s Liquors in 1898. Now known as Gasbarro’s Wines (361 Atwells Ave., 401-421-4170, www.gasbarros.com), the shop occupies a commodious space worthy of a furniture showroom. Along with around 900 Italian wines (and even more California bottles), Gasbarro’s has a select line of high-end liqueurs, grappas, and digestives, including the full selection of Poli single-varietal grappas from the Veneto.

Advantage: Boston. V. Cirace does its own importing, giving the shop access to more tiny boutique producers.

ESPRESSO & SWEET BITE

North End: Not only does Caffé Paradiso (255 Hanover St., 617-742-1768, www.caffeparadiso.com) pull an espresso with a thick crema, it also has its own quirky gelato flavor. “Zuppa Inglese’’ is the strawberry shortcake of gelato, combining strawberries, rum, and panettone (a rich bread with candied fruit).

Federal Hill: The actual bake shop is on another part of Federal Hill, but all the rich delights are on beautiful display at centrally located Palmieri’s Piazza Caffè (64 DePasquale Plaza, 401-861-2253). One slice of tiramisu is rich enough to split, but the big dessert somehow disappears handily next to a small espresso.

Advantage: Boston. Paradiso gets points for turning bread into ice cream.

ITALIAN HOUSEWARES

North End: When you walk into Salem Street True Value Hardware (89 Salem St., 617-523-4759, www.salemstreettruevalue.com), turn left for motorized and hand-cranked pasta machines, forms for rolling cannoli, espresso pots, espresso cups, gnocchi boards for forming those delectable dumplings, pizzelle irons, milk frothers, and of course, all-important sausage grinders.

Federal Hill: At Tony’s Colonial Food Store (311 Atwells Ave., 401-621-8675, www.tonyscolonial.com), housewares share the shelves with their companion food products, so you have to look a little harder. The espresso pots are with the espresso beans, for example, and the restaurant-style cheese grater is across from the wheels of aged Romano, Parmagiano, and Grana Padano.

Advantage: Depends on whether you also need a quart of paint or a kilo of artisanal dried pasta.

ENTERTAINMENT

North End: A night at Improv Asylum (216 Hanover St., 617-263-6887, www.improvasylum.com) is so funny that you couldn’t make it up - even if the cast of the Main Stage Show revue does. Nostalgia is the theme this winter in the new revue, “Life Before Sext.’’

Federal Hill: Hookah bars offer the hottest night life on Federal Hill. There are at least three choices, including ultra-slick Skarr (292 Atwells Ave., 401-338-3975, www.skarrri.com). Lebanese nibbles combine with cocktails and music that you feel more than hear.

Advantage: Boston. We’d rather laugh than cough.

DELI MEALS TO GO

North End: It’s easy to become paralyzed by the choices at DePasquale’s Homemade Pasta Shop (66A Cross St., 617-248-9629, www.homemade-pasta.com), where pasta maker Zoya Kogan creates 50 shapes and fillings. Some of that great pasta goes to Bricco Ristorante, but the cases are still full of such treats as smoked chicken and marscapone ravioli or squid ink and tomato pappardelle. Great artisanal cheeses are available to sprinkle on top.

Federal Hill: Some Providence restaurants get their pastas from Costantino’s Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Ave., 401-421-9105, www.vendaravioli.com), and you can, too. But Venda Ravioli also has cases full of gorgeous prepared foods, like braciola cooked in marinara, stuffed rolled eggplant, and even artichokes filled with crabmeat. Heat the eggplant or chicken parm in your own oven. Your dinner guests need never know.

Advantage: Oh, just kill us now. We’ll eat twice.

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