It’s easy to pick out Patrick “P.J.” Halloran on the streets of this city — he’s the one wielding the giant silver fork. Halloran, a firefighter in Somerville who grew up in Gloucester, launched Taste Newburyport food tours in May and has been leading foodies around the city for a sampling of choice eats garnished with bits of history.
His inspiration: “We took a bunch of food tours in Italy and realized that this is a great way to see a city.” Halloran also offers food tours of Gloucester (plus a new brewery tour) and Rockport, but it’s Newburyport that truly surprises, given his ability to sleuth out small specialty shops that offer big taste, including a “Cupcake Wars” contestant and an “O” Magazine pick.
Six of us met on a recent Saturday in Market Square, ready to eat (we had skipped breakfast so we could give it our best shot). Apparently a believer in the “life is short, eat dessert first” philosophy, Halloran led us to Eat Cake! (6 Inn St., 978-465-6057, www.eatcakeonline.com), a tiny cupcakery whose proprietor, Hilary Larson, was featured on “Cupcake Wars.” The shop’s five flavors of the day are revealed on Facebook. We chose from a tray of mini ones that were quite delicious. Everything is baked in-house.
As we wiped ganache from our lips, Halloran led us toward Pleasant Street, sharing tidbits of the city’s history. After a quick peek at the Unitarian Universalist Church, we popped across the street to Grand Trunk Old World Market (53 Pleasant St., 978-499-4441, www.grandtrunkimports.com). Now in its 10th year, the mom-and-pop shop (owned by Angela and Jeremy Kirkpatrick) is a culinary fiesta of mostly imported items such as olives, salamis, and cheeses that the owners discover on their travels abroad. The most intriguing, to us, was an Iberico ham that cost $75 a pound. The Kirkpatricks passed around a tray with chunks of bread, salami, cheese, dates, and dried cranberries, explaining that they run food-related events like a wine-and-tapas pairing at a farm table in the back of the house. The shop hosts complimentary wine tastings on weekends.
As we wandered toward State Street, one of the city’s main drags, Halloran shared a few more snippets of local lore, including the tale of resident Albert Pike, the only Confederate general to have a statue in a Union state. Heading down State Street, using his fork as a pointer, Halloran gestured toward the Grog (“It’s pretty much required that everybody stops for a drink there”) and the Thirsty Whale (“a great dive bar”). But there would be no drinking for us . . . yet.
“I apologize for the terrible aroma,” our guide quipped as we entered year-old Buttermilk Baking (3 Liberty St., 978-499-8278, www.buttermilkbaking.com), a tiny, sweet-smelling shop that’s becoming known for apple and blueberry hand pies (as in hand-sized pies). Owner Ashley Bush passed out chunks of blueberry- and cherry-filled hand pies, while selling slices of quiche to customers. (Sources for her ingredients — mostly local farms — are posted on a bulletin board.)
“Everybody hungry?” Halloran said. It was time for some solid food, lunch at Ten Center restaurant and pub (10 Center St., 978-462-6652, www.tencenterstreet.com). First, though, we stopped at Elbow Lane, along the “Clipper Heritage Trail,” where our guide chatted a bit about Newburyport’s role in the underground railroad system, and how — supposedly — a series of tunnels ran from the stately homes on High Street to the wharf.
Halloran’s tour is a mash-up of history and specialty foods, as opposed to one or the other, but nobody seemed to mind. “It’s awesome. We come [to Newburyport] quite a bit, but we’re seeing places we’ve never discovered before,” said Mark Manfredi of Wakefield, who was touring with his wife, Nancy. Participants seemed fairly food-savvy, and some had taken food tours before, in places like Portland, Ore., and Japan. Halloran noted that the local food scene is “just exploding,” adding, “I could never have done this tour last summer. Everything just fell into place.” It’s still a work in progress, he admitted, noting that he’s still playing with the mix of his itinerary.
For now, Ten Center is a satisfying stop. Set in an old tavern with wide plank floors and exposed brick walls, the restaurant feels pleasantly “New England” to out-of-towners, like the Californians in our group. And the food hit the spot: a choice of a burger and truffle tater tots or a small salad and a bubbly-hot serving of lobster mac and cheese. During lunch, Halloran split the group into two teams and quizzed us on facts from the tour, but mostly we talked about food: good things we’d eaten, good things we were hoping to eat, and a few things we hoped never to eat again (octopus embryos).
Hanging out with a group of food enthusiasts — while eating — is a dandy way to spend a Saturday morning, we decided. And there was more eating to do. After a brief chat about the city’s historic clipper ships, we made a pass through the Oldies Market on the waterfront — basically a giant indoor garage sale with a combination of funky junk and antiques. We felt a tug of nostalgia when we saw the huge neon “Friendly’s” sign out back. We walked toward the Coast Guard Station and a lighthouse that’s the scene of one of the most interesting local dining options. “For $350, you can buy a membership to the lighthouse, and one of 10 restaurants in the city will serve you dinner up there,” Halloran said.
Our next stop: Joppa Fine Foods Market (The Tannery, 50 Water St., 978-462-4662, www.joppafinefoods.com), a gourmet grocery store with outdoor tables and an array of prepared foods. We sampled an Italian pressed sandwich, wishing we were hungrier so we could fully appreciate its charms. Ditto the olive oils and balsamic vinegars we were offered at Newburyport Olive Oil Co. (The Tannery, 50 Water St., 978-462-7700, www.newburyportoliveoil.com), where the olive oils — imported from all over the world — deliver a grassy, fruity, or peppery taste on the tongue, and they’re so light, you can drink them. (We did, from tiny white cups.) The shop also stocks a selection of balsamic vinegars, mostly from Modena, Italy. The olive oil tasting bar is complimentary, with most people looking for a good dipping oil for bread. (A common request: How to duplicate the delicious dip served at Not Your Average Joe’s. Yes, they’ve figured out the recipe.)
Given all that, you’d think we’d have no room for yet another dessert. You’d be wrong. There’s always room for a whoopie pie, we discovered during our last stop, Chococoa Café & Baking Co. (The Tannery, 50 Water St., 978-499-8889, www.chococoabaking.com). Chococoa’s mini whoopie pies, coming in at 130 calories each, were recently featured in O magazine. Chocolate with vanilla filling is still the bestseller among these bite-sized confections, but flavors include rum and coconut, espresso crème, and salted caramel. Typically, 10 to 12 flavors are available, and the owners — who bake about 10,000 whoopie pies each week — are working on a gluten-free version.
Post-whoopie, the tour was officially over — unofficially, there was a bonus, a visit to Riverwalk Brewing Co. (3 Graf Road, 978-499-2337, www.riverwalkbrewing.com) for beer-and-cookie pairings. “It’s a special event, just for today,” Halloran said. “That’s what’s great about this tour — it’s really fluid. No pun intended.”
TASTE NEWBURYPORT operates three or four days a week, depending on interest, from June to December. The 2½-hour tour costs $47. 617-902-8291, www.tastenewburyport.com.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.