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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Flavors of the North End

Published: September 3, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

During the summer, I fell in love with the North End.

The North End is a foodie’s dream. Boston’s appropriately named “Little Italy” features a hodge-podge of cozy restaurants, cafés, bakeries and gelaterias.

One of my first experiences of food in the North End was at Mike’s Pastry. Mike’s Pastry, like the area in which it is located, is a major tourist attraction. Every night, Mike’s is filled with people wearing Boston Red Sox t-shirts and clutching cameras. At first the crowd of people spilling out the bakery’s doors and onto Hanover Street can be a little daunting, but to the staff this flood of hungry people is old-hat. The line moves quickly and orders are filled at a break-neck pace. What’s great about Mike’s is that it lives up to the hype. Nearly everything is made fresh on-site, and with 50 years of baking experience, their pastries are worth the wait. Their cannolis are huge flaky shells filled with creamy ricotta cheese that can be covered in powdered sugar, chocolate or even pistachio nuts.

While Mike’s Pastry appears to be the tourist destination, locals seem to swear by The Modern Pastry, which is also on Hanover Street Declared “Best of Boston” by Boston Magazine and with 70 years of baking experience, The Modern Pastry is a tiny bakery that specializes in handmade cookies and other traditional Italian sweets. I tried a pink, sugared cookie that was fresh and delicious. Modern’s emphasis on its traditional offerings is one of the many signs that the North End is keeping its Italian heritage alive.

Other notable bakeries include Bova’s Bakery, open 24 hours per day, and Lulu’s Bake Shoppe. Lulu’s cupcakes satisfy a diverse range of tastes with their imaginative flavors from red velvet to lemon hearts. For gelato lovers, unfortunately the gelaterias tend to overcharge. Instead, many bakeries also have a selection of gelato, often at a third of the price of the expensive gelaterias.

The numerous bakeries are not only noteworthy for their tasty treats, but also because they reveal a slice of North End’s character. The bakeries are small and do not always offer much space for customers to enjoy their purchases, so one is often obliged to perch on storefront steps or apartment stoops. Almost everything in the North End takes place on the streets or sidewalks. Many of the restaurants and cafés have outside dining tables and since the streets are very narrow and there is a lot of foot-traffic, this leads to a festive, social atmosphere. The North End is ideal for people watching and for listening.

In order to experience the sounds of the North End, go during the evening. At night is when friends meet up after work to cheer for their teams on the television at a café, when musicians walk and play soft tunes, when restaurants entertain their guests with singing, when couples chat and laugh. All these noises spill out onto the street to create a wonderful cacophony.

Apart from the bakeries, to have a true foodie experience of North End, some of the numerous Italian restaurants should also be visited. There are an overwhelming number to choose from. During the evening, hosts stand at the restaurants’ doors and beckon people walking by with promises of serving Boston’s best rigatoni, risotto, lasagna and pizza. It’s difficult to choose and regrettably, because the North End is a popular area for tourists, all the options tend toward the pricey side. A cheaper (though still delicious) option is Ernesto’s. Located on Salem Street, the pizzeria offers 24 different slices. One plain slice is three dollars, but considering its gigantic size, it may be worth it.

I’d recommend walking up and down the streets to peer at the menus posted outside. There are often lunch deals and occasionally hosts will offer potential diners a bargain.

Besides, why not walk around? After all, the North End epitomizes Boston’s claim of being a “walking city.” Exploring the area’s cozy streets and pathways can lead to surprising and charming discoveries. The Freedom Trail winds its way through the North End and tucked among its streets is the Paul Revere house, the Old North Church, Boston’s oldest standing church, as well as a few other historical sites.

The flavors of the North End are vibrant and worth experiencing. Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with Boston’s “Little Italy” too.