Thousands of tourists flock to Boston's North End each year, drawn to the neighborhood by way of the Freedom Trail, which winds down Hanover Street and pauses in the neighborhood at the brown-shingled Paul Revere's House and the imposing, colonial Old North Church. The North End rose to fame as Beantown's Little Italy, after the neighborhood was flooded with immigrants from the areas around Naples and Rome during the early 20th century. On the surface it can seem like the rich culture of the neighborhood has been co-opted by a tourist industry selling shamrock sweatshirts and polyester Italian flags: in the height of summer, it's possible to wait hours for a table at one of the area's swarms of pricey Italian restaurants or for a cannoli at legendary Mike's Pastry. However, more enterprising visitors will find that a scattering of deeply charming and largely uncrowded gems remain to be discovered, tucked into side streets and all the richer for their camouflage.
A healthy community of first-, second-, and third-generation Italian immigrants remains in the neighborhood, most evident during the second half of the summer, when the neighborhood blossoms with Saint's Day festivals each weekend. With such a deeply-rooted Italian-American population, it's no wonder the area is a nexus of deliciousness. If you're looking for a paradise of culinary delights, you've come to the right place; for designer clothes or bookstores, try another neighborhood.
Meats and Cheeses:
Tutto Italiano, 20 Fleet St: The management of this family-owned specialty store is friendly and open—the owner recommended many of the following shops from his perch under strings of drying sausage and garlic and above a refrigerated display of cold cuts. The store also sells local and imported pastas, breads, and cheeses. Food tours of the North End sometimes stop here, so during your visit you may be treated to a free lecture about the differences between "virgin" and "extra-virgin" olive oil.
Salumeria Italiana, 151 Richmond St, at the corner of Richmond and Hanover: This small storefront gets plenty of tourist foot traffic, as it is located at the mouth of the North End, and the Freedom Trail goes right by its door. But it is still worth looking inside, if only for the riot of color that greets customers as they enter. The small store is packed to the gills with gourmet Italian fare, from imported pastas to fine cheeses to high-end meats. It's an excellent photo opportunity, even if you're not interested in a hunk of nougatine or a bag of sliced almonds.
Sulmona Meat Market, 32 Parmenter St: The term hole-in-the-wall was seemingly made for this tiny shop, just about as off-the-beaten-path as the North End gets. Butchers stand along the single counter chopping cuts of steak and listening to Italian-language radio. The shop itself is neon-lit and spartan, decorated only with a map of Italy, pictures of local politicians posing with the owner, a stack of Italian Vogue magazines, and the indispensable Lavazza espresso machine in the corner.
Bova's Bakery, 134 Salem St on the corner of Salem and Prince: Hanover Street's Mike's Pastry may make a mean cannoli, but at easily accessible but lesser-known Bova's you'll never have to wait two hours to eat one. The bakery has a dizzying selection of pastries, cookies, and other sweets, as well as enormous, filling stromboli that, at $7, are pricey but will fill you up to continue your North End wanderings.
Parziale's Bakery, 80 Prince St: In the contest with its neighbor for clientele, this little bakery may lose to the more visible Bova's, but its bread is known as the best in the area among locals. Rounds of crusty goodness and braided heaven hang on racks above a considerable selection of cookies and pastries. Like its North End bakery brethren, Parziale's takes advantage of its location to slap a considerable mark-up on its fresh-filled cannoli, but other less tourist-centric selections will hardly dent your wallet.
Maria's Pastry Shop, 46 Cross St: Bova's, Parziale's, and many other less remarkable bakeries aside, some locals point at Maria's as the place to go for the best baked goods in the neighborhood. Hidden to the left on the tourist-heavy Cross Street and facing the new Rose Kennedy Greenway, Maria's offers everything from fantastic biscotti to excellent cannoli, all under the watch of the family cat. Stop by for an espresso or one last sweet before heading back to the T.
Cirace's Purveyors of Fine Wine, 173 North St, corner of North and Richmond: There are several liquor stores in the North End, but Cirace's has one of the most extensive selections and definitely the best ambiance. The decades-old shop is all dark paneling and gleaming hardwood floors, which groan pleasantly as customers explore seemingly endless racks of wines from all over the world. The store also boasts a remarkable selection of liqueurs, hard liquor, and Italian specialties—jonesing for that limoncello you last tasted in Cinque Terre? Look no farther—and they fall on all parts of the cost spectrum.
Alba Produce (better known as Albie's), 18 Parmenter St: An unpretentious grocery/produce shop tucked down Parmenter Street, Albie's is a pleasant spot to pick from colorful heaps of fruits and vegetables when Haymarket isn't in session. A framed, hand-lettered, tongue-and-cheek sign on the wall proclaims the store's name "the place after Pagliuca's place"; "the place before old little city hall"; "the place across from Panino's fence"; and, most importantly, "the place most North Enders get their fresh vegetables."
Polcari's Coffee,105 Salem St, on the corner of Parmenter and Salem: Walk a few doors down from Albie's to find one of the North End's true gems. Polcari's Coffee is a general store cum spice and sweet shop whose insides seem unaltered since the 1940s (the store sells postcards of old photos that attest to this fact), with the exception of a small TV that is often tuned to a Red Sox game. Vanilla beans, tarragon, zaatar, and juniper jostle for space with tubs of Jordan almonds and lollipops. An old-fashioned counter hosts what was probably the 75-year-old store's original cash register and a brass scale that can't be much newer. In the back, the owners cut meat and cheese and measure out lentils and coffee beans for locals who come in for gossip and essentials. On hot days, frozen lemonade from the barrel just outside the door is beyond divine.
Stanza de Sigari, 292 Hanover St., next to Mike's Pastry: Didn't have room in your suitcase for your time machine on this trip to Boston? No problem: just follow the crowds to Mike's Bakery and look for the sign next door for this cigar lounge. Boston stopped issuing permits for cigar bars in 2009, and cigars have gone out of fashion in an age of wheatgrass shakes and cigarette bans, so Stanza de Sigari is truly one of the last of its kind. Even if you detest cigars, it's worth a moment to descend the stairs into the murky, smoke-filled lounge to marvel at the décor and atmosphere of a locale that has taken turns as a 1920s speakeasy and a 1960s men's club.
Sal's Lunch, 31 Thacher St, between Endicott and Lynn: After all that walking you're sure to be hungry. Another hidden gem, this tiny luncheonette has been in the 85-year-old owner's family since his grandfather, Sal, arrived in the North End. Grubby parquet tile; stools at an old-style bar; affordable diner essentials such as kebabs and hamburgers; excellent atmosphere and dining companions—this place has it all. Some grumblers say the food can be middling, but who cares? Relish the unique character of the place, then go eat your weight in spaghetti elsewhere. (Sal's is open Monday-Friday, 6 am-4 pm.)
Nearest T stop: Haymarket (Orange Line); Government Center (Green Line). Park Street (Green and Red Lines) is a manageable walk away, through the heart of Boston.