With a recent work trip to India followed immediately by Spring Break, I am behind on updating this blog. After my return from India Will and I visited my sister Edie in Massachusetts, and now I am in SoCal for four days.
In Boston, Will and I enjoyed a guided food tour of the North End, then returned the next day with Edie to explore further, and do some shopping. I am really becoming a fan of guided city tours. Our tour in Boston was provided by Michele Topor's Boston Food Tours, and our tour guide was Jim Becker. The tour was packed with information about Italian food and the history of Boston's North End. Jim was a great teacher and entertaining guide.
I especially appreciated the fact that Jim worked hard to steer clear of the more touristy aspects of the North End. Authentic is an overused word that is hard to define. Authentic Italian American cuisine is certainly not authentic Italian cuisine, but it is also a step up from from 'tourist' Italian American cuisine. Jim was great at explaining the differences and how they developed over time.
My son Will asks "why do you have to take pictures of everything". After looking at the photos I took in the North End, my personal reaction was "damn, I was paying so much attention to Jim that I missed a lot of photos I should have taken". With that said, I did get a few good shots, and of course recollections of the places we visited. These are actually a composite of the tour and returning the next day to shop, eat and reprise the tour with my sister.
Polcari's Coffee is one of my favorite spots in the North End. I had been there previously, but learned a lot more on this tour. Polcari's has been in operation since 1932, selling coffee (of course), spices, grains and other dry goods. Walk in, and you are engulfed in sweet smells of coffee, cinnamon and other spices and the sense of being transported back in time by the wood floor, glass canisters and variety of bulk spices and dry goods.
At each place we visited, Jim provided some interesting food lore. His background as a chef was certainly evident and helped make the tour far more than a series of visits to interesting shops. One of the key lessons at Polcari's was on the difference between Cassia Cinnamon and Ceylon (real) Cinnamon. They are both tree bark, and have similar flavors and aromas, but cassia is less expensive and is commonly sold as cinnamon. I knew they were different, but had never compared them head to head. Smelling cassia side by side with real cinnamon was a revelation. The aroma of cassia made me think of fireballs and other cinnamon candy. The aroma of real cinnamon brought to mind the best pastries or cinnamon flavored rice pudding. It was a little milder, but also more complex with scents of a range of spices and flowers. In the future for baking and desserts I will be using Ceylon Cinnamon.
One of the wonderful aspects of the North End tour was how friendly everyone was in the shops we visited. I wanted to take a picture of the old scale at Polcari's. The nice guy behind the counter (whose name I embarrassingly failed to get) staged the scale with espresso beans, and then posed in the photo.
Monica's Mercato and two associated restaurants are the collective project of the Mendoza Brothers, whose mother and family are Italian immigrants to the North End via Argentina. Part of our take home dinner on Friday came from Monica's Mercato, and we visited Tratorria di Monica for lunch on Saturday. All of their food was drool-worthy.
I can vouch for the sign that says "Best Italian Sub in Boston". Will and I shared one on Friday, and it was delicious. The Mendozas have their own bakery, and the sub roll and contents were both excellent. I am not eating much wheat these days, but the North End was a justifiable excuse to cheat.
One of Jim's lessons at Monica's Mercato was on the difference between salami and sopressata. While both are cured sausage, salami is typically made with ground meat and has a fine grain texture while sopressata is made with chopped meat and hence has a course texture.
Monica's Mercato (like most of the places we visited) had a small interior, but it was densely packed with delicious and colorful food.
Trattoria di Monica
We had lunch Saturday at Trattoria di Monica. Our wonderful waitress (another name fail on my part) said the broccoli rabe with sausage over sweet potato gnocchi was her favorite. I would have been sold anyway, and it was delicious. Will had a sausage sub, which as normal with him disappeared before I had even noticed its arrival. That seems to happen with 14 year old boys and food.
Jim took us to a lot of other places in the North End. We ate wicked pastries at Maria's, met Albie at Alba's Produce, learned the difference between the two types of real balsamic vinegar at DePasquale's and tasted delicious limoncello at Cirace & Son. When people retire to Florida it baffles me. If I ever have the luxury of retirement, I will move to somewhere like the North End where I can be in the midst of a continuous lesson in delicious food and wine.
The photos below show more of the mouthwatering North End neighborhood.