SALEM — Call it truffled, bacon-dusted history.
Karen Scalia’s Salem Food Tours don’t stop for witches, nor do they glide along on Segways. But the special effects on these culinary walking tours are memorable nonetheless.
Scalia may be the only Salem tour guide who begins by asking her groups, “Does anyone have a food allergy?”
Salem Food Tours (salemfoodtours.com) opened for business in September, offering tours of local culinary hot spots for up to a dozen people, both tourists and locals. For $46 (reservations strongly recommended), guests get roughly a three-hour tour hitting everything from sandwich spots to destination restaurants to gourmet shops and, on Thursdays, the Salem Farmers Market.
“I’m offering something locally that if I was traveling, I would do,” Scalia said.
Some tours have sold out. There’s tasting — and learning — at every stop along the way, as Scalia demonstrated on a recent media tour.
There were six salts and four peppers to taste at Salem Spice. Two different oysters at Finz Seafood & Grill. At 62 Restaurant, chef/owner Antonio Bettencourt whipped up a quick garganelli with duck and dried cherries that was parceled out on small plates.
The plate at Scratch Kitchen included an espresso cup of soup, a bite-sized Reuben sandwich, and the aforementioned popcorn. Chef William Fogarty sprinkles the kernels with a powder made from tapioca flour and “liquid gold,” the fat from cooking his house-cured bacon.
Next up: fresh, tasty and super-spicy pickles from Salem’s own Maitland Mountain Farm at the farmers market. Then a quick peek into a handful of shops on Church Street, including cheese and chocolate at Milk & Honey. And finally, a sit-down at 43 Church that included a whopping six tastes and two wines.
“This is a little more than you’d normally get on a tour,” Scalia admitted, as everyone tucked into bowls of cassoulet studded with rabbit sausage and lamb osso bucco.
While there’s usually a sit-down at the end, the route and the stops change frequently, and intellectual nutrition is always on the menu. At Salem Spice’s retail store, called the Picklepot, Scalia and proprietor David J. Bowie talked about Salem’s history as a trade port and the way some of America’s first fortunes were built here on pepper and other spices.
“Having her tour come through here really gives me an opportunity to talk about the history of Salem and the spice trade and tell people why I’m here,” Bowie said at his shop on Pickering Wharf.
At Finz, proprietor George Carey talked about the environmental value and superior taste of local oysters and the challenges facing the New England fishing industry.
At 43 Church, Scalia pulled out old newspaper clippings and other research on Salem dining and restaurant history, including events at Lyceum Hall in the same building.
“I’m having a ball; I’m not going to make any bones about it,” she said.
Scalia grew up in Chelsea and lived in New York for years, working as an actress on stage and in commercials. Like most actors, she had other gigs, in the dining industry and in event planning as a consultant at American Express, which had its offices at Three World Financial Center in Manhattan.
On Sept. 10, 2001, friends surprised her with a ticket to the Red Sox-Yankees game, so she was at Yankee Stadium for what turned out to be a late rainout. She decided to go into work a little late the next day, so she was still at home in Brooklyn when the planes hit the towers right outside the office windows. That day and the emotional months that followed started changing her priorities.
She met Mark Scalia, who would become her husband, when she was back here visiting in 2002. He also grew up in Chelsea, although they never knew each other then. She moved back to Massachusetts for good in 2004. With family in several North Shore towns, she chose Salem for its proximity to the ocean, history, and lively cultural scene.
She’s still acting and is a member of the actors’ union local leadership. She also led a couple of different historic Salem walking tours. Then, about a year ago, she had her food-tour brainstorm.
“It all came together for me, this passion I have for food, especially locally sourced food, combined with my love of history and my love of Salem,” Scalia said. “I realized that it was a great way to understand this city and US history, with the spice trade and everything that happened here in Salem, completely an organic, natural next step.”
For local businesses, the tour is a chance to get guests in the door who may return for a full meal or shopping.
“It’s just a chance to showcase our restaurant . . . and bring in some people that might not know about us,” said Scratch Kitchen’s Fogarty. “They see we’re a nice, inviting restaurant with a comfortable feel, and we get a chance to talk about the quality of our food.”
In the long run, Scalia hopes she can expand the business beyond Salem, but right now she’s working on building her list of tour stops and varying the itinerary. A recent vegan food tour sold out, and she is eyeing Christmas-themed dinners and children’s events.
“The hardest part of my job is saying, ‘We’ve got to go,’ ” she said.