Sunday, July 22, 2007

North End Market Tour

Polcari's Coffee in Boston's North End has all manner of ingredients––and coffee, of course––packed into a corner store.

A month ago, just a day after the summer solstice (and having put my two boys and husband on a plane to Colorado), my friends Linda and Rosemary and I went to Boston for a North End Market Tour. A three-hour guided tour, we ventured through seven small Italian markets on a cool and breezy summer day, with the odd passing shower. [For more on these excellent tours, organized by Michele Topor, see:]
Boston's North End is primarily an Italian-American neighborhood.
My brothers used to live in the North End at different times in the 1980s and 90s but I, like so many tourists, even though I lived in another Boston neighborhood, didn't really get to know the heart of this diverse part of Boston culture and cuisine. Had I been more of a cook back then, I probably would have ventured there more regularly. The landscape has changed now because of the "Big Dig" which has buried Route 93, formerly an elevated series of lanes and exits right through the city of Boston.
Shops like Maria's Pastry Shop now see the light of day after the "Big Dig" (a ten-year construction project in downtown Boston that involved taking down an elevated subway and new greenspace)

One of our first stops was at Maria's Pastry Shop. Here we sampled marzipan fruits, different pastries, and returned later after the tour and lunch for cannolis and capuccino (and a variety of take home items, including a couple of "sfogliatelle" pastries for my daughter and I for breakfast the next day). Meaning "clam shell", this Italian Neapolitan pastry shell is, to quote from Maria's website, "filled with cheese, semolina flour and citron fruit, mixed with eggs and sugar with a slight cinnamon/orange flavor." The lightly sweetened ricotta filling with a hint of citron was perfect and not too sweet: well worth a return for that alone. Rosemary, herself a former pastry chef, had already figured out how to make the subtle cuts in the dough to mimic the shell. She explained it but I still can't picture it--she'll just have to show me sometime!
A tray of marzipan fruits at Maria's Pastry Shop.

A selection of pastries from Maria's Pastry Shop.
As a mother of three in the rural hinterlands, I am used to large-scale shopping and pantry-stocking. What our day in Boston reminded me about the city, and certainly evident in the North End, is the prevalence of corner markets and different kinds of specialty shopping: where you can do your marketing every day if you want. And WALK there! Here well into the ex urbes, we always say we are about 20 minutes from everything (even though we are blessed with a great village market in view of our house it can't meet every need).

Taking shelter from the rain outside of a North End fruit market.
A wall of historical memorabilia and family photographs at Polcari's.
Like many small North End markets, Polcari's is a chef and baker's dream.
Another stop was Polcari's Coffee, a North End institution and really a packed gourmet market on a small scale. Here we returned later to buy almond paste, cinnamon from Ceylon (more flaky and fragrant than regular cinnamon), and other ingredients to bring home. But the best part of our stop on the tour was a cup of lemon ice served from a large green barrel outside.

A highlight of the day included a cup of lemon ice at Polcari's.
At the end of the day, I brought home prosciutto, several different kinds of pasta and cheeses, polenta, and canned cherry tomatoes, canned Italian tuna in olive oil, an authentic balsamic vinegar (which I never did get to drizzle on Tenney strawberries this year!), a new kind of olive oil, citron and almond paste to try for holiday baking. I also got a packet of imported Italian tomato seeds.
Our guide Joe, a professional chef, shared his favorite
ingredients and many interesting asides during our tour.
Joe's favorite pasta––and now mine when I can find, or afford, it!
Finesse with a cheese wheel at the
Salumeria Italiana.
I learned about so many different kinds of ingredients on this three-hour tour and a lot of Italian food myths were debunked. We tasted new foods and enjoyed the sites and sounds of a diverse neighborhood. After our tour we had lunch at a small café that was a favorite of Linda's (across from a green grocer's we had stopped at earlier). I had the pasta carbonara and was not disappointed. Our lunch gave us time to pause and fuel up for more shopping at the places we had visited earlier. The day was like a far-off vacation all its own. And from Linda I learned about a new place to park so I can easily return again––2 hours door to door.
A variety of fresh bread in the window at the Salumeria Italiana.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, I appreciate all info- many thanks!!!

Catherine said...

You are most welcome! Thank you for stopping by (I was just thinking of this fabulous day in the North End SIX years ago now--just like it was yesterday. Too far for a day trip from our Kentucky farm, sadly.).