On a busy night in Restaurant Land, the human race falls into two categories: those who wait in line, and those who don’t. The former are glass-half-full types, optimists and fun-seekers who want to be where the party is. Which I guess makes me the curmudgeon who doesn’t believe in pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, delayed gratification, or the joy of shared experience. At least not when I’m hungry. No, I have never sampled a Cronut.
No neighborhood in Restaurant Land is as line-ridden as the North End, where everyone badly wants to eat but no one wants to eat badly. Its winding streets are a choose-your-own-adventure book come to life: You pick a place that looks impossibly charming. Dinner is pretty good. You win! You end up at a restaurant with a similar name to the one you were actually looking for. You find a hair in your cold, tasteless pasta. You lose!
We will take our chances, because the North End has a flavor of its own, both Old World and distinctly, precisely local. That must, in turn, flavor the food somehow, even if just in our minds. How else to explain our willingness to wait at places like Giacomo’s, the Daily Catch, and Pomodoro, which have some of the longest lines around (not to mention locations in other neighborhoods)? A restaurant critic in Boston can be sure of one thing: being asked, with some frequency, “Where should I eat in the North End?” My answer has varied, but these three have seldom been on the list.
I began to wonder, though. Last summer, celebrated Chicago chef Grant Achatz cited the joys of the North End Daily Catch in an interview with the website Eater: “Oh my God. We were sitting there and the food was amazing. We had broiled haddock. We had fried clams. And I was like, ‘Why doesn’t this exist at home?’ ” This is the man behind Alinea talking, although I do not know whether he had to stand on line.
Too, I have a memory of Pomodoro that dates back probably 15 years. It is the middle of a blizzard, and there is still a wait to get in. The snow is falling fast, and the world is muffled because I have retreated as far as possible into my woolen layers. I am so frozen and hungry I must be hallucinating. The door opens and out steps some sort of garlic-scented angel, dispensing bowls of steaming marinara and calamari fried to a golden crisp. At that moment, it is the best food I could possibly imagine, and it constitutes one of my most indelible taste memories of Boston.
Maybe I’m missing out. Maybe I’m making you miss out, too.
And so it is that on the coldest of many cold nights in recent memory, I am standing voluntarily in front of Giacomo’s on Hanover Street, being jostled by an inebriated birthday gal who keeps interrupting our conversation. I have committed the cardinal sin of being late, and my good-sport dinner companions had to pass on an available table. They look traumatized. “I think she hates us,” one whispers, pointing a trembling finger at the keeper of tables within.
But when another table frees up, she gives me just the slightest bit of guff. Our server is far more pleasant than I would be working in such close quarters, tables crowded into a room with gold and brick walls and chalkboards inscribed with the menu.
Soon we’re devouring calamari and garlic bread, licking our fingers. The chicken parm is unusually good, tender and not greasy. Fettuccine is tangled with tuna, swordfish, and a pesto cream sauce that is both bright and comforting. And homemade fusilli are kinky, chewy strands with lobster and shrimp in a warming fra diavolo sauce. It’s the only thing on the table that costs more than $20, including the perfectly serviceable bottle of Chianti we’ve drained.
It’s a lusty, enjoyable meal, and the only complaint is that it’s over too soon. We stood outside longer than we sat inside. The plus: It’s late enough that there’s hardly a wait at the nearby pastry shops, our line karma coming into balance.
The following week I’m back for more, this time at the Daily Catch. The place is even smaller, and the wait is even longer. A table of tourists linger. I have rarely seen diners so immune to hungry people massed and staring, imploring with their eyes. Have you no souls? Every time the door opens, a tantalizing smell escapes. And then, finally, we are in, seated in what feels like the middle of the kitchen, watching a cook kill the lobsters we are about to eat by stabbing them between the eyes.
“What do you want?” asks the guy in charge. “How can you not know what you want? You were waiting long enough!” OK. We want squid ink pasta. We want monkfish marsala. We want lobster fra diavolo. The men at the next table approve: “You girls know how to order!” In a place this size there is no way not to talk to one another. Pretty soon everyone is congratulating the diner who just published a book and is strategizing how to boost his Amazon ratings.
Thick, black strands of al dente pasta are served aglio olio, sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and ground squid. The monkfish marsala is rich and sweet with wine. The fra diavolo is a tour de force, a big skillet with mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, and a lobster perched at the rim like a figurehead on a ship. We eat it all. We slurp wine from plastic cups. We watch cooks work hard and fast, throwing things in blenders, shoving things in pots, starting fires next to our heads. It is glorious.
A few days later, I head to Pomodoro. It’s a Friday night and there is a line, but through perseverance we have scored a reservation. “I called and I called and no one ever answered,” someone is explaining to his date. One friend is late: She just parked, we say. She will be here any moment! The woman dealing with seating in the tiny nook just says, “Mm hmm.” Perhaps she has heard this before?
The stars align. The friend arrives. We are ushered past the waiting parties — I have been you! We are all the line! — and squeeze our way to a table. We feel like rock stars. Rock stars getting elbowed by a guy in a turtleneck and in danger of being splattered by food every time a dish makes the brief, harrowing journey from the kitchen.
The lighting here is romantic, the walls beige, the bathroom the size of a broom closet; counter seating at the window offers a view of the North End passing by. The meal starts with a beautiful antipasto platter of salumi, poached calamari, tuna-stuffed red peppers, fried artichoke hearts, and more. If the artichokes are a bit tough and a few bites of squid less than perfectly tender, the platter makes up for it through sheer bounty.
As for the fried calamari, no, it does not live up to the romanticized dish of my memory. How could it? But it is awfully good.
Chicken carbonara with rigatoni is wonderful, a favorite at the table. Veal scaloppine is dark brown with balsamic vinegar, addictively sweet and sour, served with green olive risotto. The grains are soft, but the flavors pair well with the balsamic. A dish of farfalle with shrimp, salt cod, artichokes, potatoes, and olives is marred by cod that is still intensely salty.
It is late. Pomodoro has run out of tiramisu. We are sad. Then guys come busting in from Mike’s across the street, bearing a tray of cannoli. Superheroes save the day. Should we share one? Before we can decide, there are four on the table, no charge. Eat the cannoli.
People sometimes complain about the service at these places, saying it is rude rude rude. This I never encounter. I get brusque, efficient, ultimately friendly treatment at all. There are no frills. If you bristle at being slightly manhandled in the name of feeding large numbers of people in impossibly small spaces, please avoid.
Yes, gruff attitudes are part of the experience, part of the charm of eating at these restaurants. Yes, so is waiting out front on the sidewalk like a human parking-space saver, with the camaraderie of your fellow fools for food and the perfume of garlic escaping whenever the door opens. Yes, please write and tell me what an idiot I am for ordering all wrong and missing your favorite dishes. I will order them next time I stand in line, happily.
Giacomo’s Ristorante, 355 Hanover St., Boston. 617-523-9026. The Daily Catch, 323 Hanover St., Boston. 617-523-8567. www.dailycatch.com. Pomodoro, 319 Hanover St., Boston. 617-367-4348.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.