It’s 11 a.m. in the North End, and I can’t move. My car is trapped in a line of vehicles idling behind a laundry truck on Prince Street. Ah, yes, here’s the inevitable symphony. Beeping. Cursing. A man gets out of his car, driver’s door ajar, to hurl expletives at the offending driver. A hapless woman totters in and out of traffic, clutching a map, and asks someone where the Old North Church is. Not here, lady. Not at this unholy scene.
Will I ever see my children again? Where is the nearest bathroom? Why did I agree to this assignment? My primary acquaintance with the North End growing up involved occasional meals with my father at L’Osteria, close to his office at Government Center. When he retired a few years ago, his colleagues threw him a party on the second floor of Filippo Ristorante. I haven’t been back much since, save a reporting assignment on Italian food a few years back: too overwhelming, too hard to park, too many lines. Case in point, this whole situation.
Finally, the truck gives way, and I edge onto Hanover Street and careen over the hill toward the neighborhood’s fringes. There’s plenty of parking at the lots by Lewis Wharf, and it feels cooler here. Breezier. And there is also Anthony’s Café on the Waterfront, a flamingo-pink storefront that looks like it belongs in Miami Beach, not on the outskirts of Boston.
“North End’s oldest and best breakfast,” a sign says. Cash only.
I am hot and hungry. I step inside.
Breakfast: Anthony’s Café on the Waterfront
There’s a fan whirring, and a family with two small children is watching the World Cup amid stacks of syrup-spackled dishes. Order at the counter, if you can see past the stacks of paper plates and loaves of bread.
“How hungry are you?” the cashier asks.
I allow that I am moderately hungry. She suggests an omelet. Knowing I’ll be eating all day, I counter with an egg and cheese on a roll.
“No meat?” she confirms.
My food is ready within 90 seconds. For $3.25, I have a hot paper plate quaking with carbs and protein, a yellow blanket of American cheese, and a waterfront window seat. There’s a real fresh egg in here — none of those rubbery pre-formed squares. A few local guys come in and out, ordering pancakes ($7.49 for a stack of four) and coffee. This place is cheap and hidden. And judging by the expression of the woman seated at the next table, one eye on me and one eye on the soccer match, people want to keep it that way.
252 Commercial St., Boston, 617-742-2987. Cash only.
Up the hill is Artu, a restaurant that longtime North End culinary tour guide Michele Topor says is a haven for locals. She recommends the meatballs, so that’s what I get.
Arrive before noon for maximum privacy. I have the entire dining room (almost) to myself, and the full attention of my server, Tiffany, who commends my meatball panini choice. They’re $9 — a lunchtime steal, considering the size. Bread comes from Parziale’s Bakery down the block, firm on the outside and soft on the inside. Homemade beef and pork meatballs are soft and rich, too, without a trace of grease. Lesser meatballs are too blackened, too hard, just gristly oil repositories without soul. Not here. No gloopy cheese, either. Merely a dusting of parmigiano atop a sweetish splash of tomato sauce.
Turns out Michele was right about the local thing, too. As I stand up to leave, four older folks sit down.
“My brother and I live down the street. This is a ritual for us,” one of them informs Tiffany. Their friend is visiting from Dallas, but he’s really a local, too.
“I was baptized down the street at Sacred Heart,” he assures her.
6 Prince St., 617-742-4336, www.artuboston.com
Pasta: Daily Catch
There’s a Daily Catch in Brookline and another in the Seaport, but the famous one is in the North End. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t set foot on Hanover Street this time — too busy, too known — yet I can’t help it. I’m enchanted by this minuscule, garlic-charged closet, where chefs toss pasta in pans in full view of an open kitchen, wine and oil and tomato sauce splashing in the air, an elegant spectacle of chaos, sizzle, and ballet.
A man at the door urges hopeful customers to stand back. They are crowding the door, and people are trying to leave. But he has a table for me, a solo traveler, wedged against the window. I sit across from a man in a rumpled suit reading “A Gentleman in Moscow” and drinking house white from a plastic cup.
Daily Catch is known for seafood, and the choices are scrawled on a chalkboard on the wall — mussels marinara, shrimp scampi, fried calamari. Just don’t get fancy with the pastas.
“All I have is linguine,” the server explains to a bewildered group as he stacks plates on the table.
Get the homemade black pasta, tinta de calamari, just al dente enough to be chewy. An appetizer portion, topped with puttanesca sauce thickened with pureed olive-anchovy butter, is just $14.95. It’s at least two meals, and even better the second day, when the butter has had time to seep into the pasta. It’s salty, briny, and just a tiny bit sweet, thanks to healthy slices of red pepper.
I eat quickly and pay in cash. A line is beginning to form, and someone else really wants my table. I don’t wait around for change.
323 Hanover St., Boston, thedailycatch.com. Cash only.
Friendly Respite: Theo’s Cozy Corner
I cross Hanover and make a left onto Prince, where I spot an elderly woman in a straw hat wrapped with a red ribbon, walking slowly along the sidewalk with a friend. A few people pause to say hello. My reporter’s instincts tell me that she is Someone.
I am right.
She is Nancy Caruso, “the mayor of the North End,” her walking companion informs me, and a former professor at Northeastern University. Caruso was instrumental in neighborhood preservation during the Big Dig era, serving as a co-chair of the North End Central Artery Advisory Committee.
“She took the North End by storm,” says her friend, who refuses to be named.
Caruso grins and looks up at me from under her wide-brimmed hat.
“Just try to stop a Sicilian,” she says.
I want to learn more about Caruso’s history, but I also want to know where to eat.
Theo’s Cozy Corner, she replies. In fact, she’s going there later.
You probably won’t find Theo’s in a guidebook or on an algorithm-generated top-10 list. From the outside, it looks like the kind of place one might get thrown out of after too many beers too late at night. Don’t be deceived.
The cheerful Brazilian-Italian hideaway serves breakfast and lunch to fellows in paint-stained jeans. There are traditional breakfast items, spaghetti and various parmesans. Flip the menu for a list of Brazilian specialties. Caruso plans to order the muqueca, Brazilian tilapia stew with rice, for $14.95. It’s nearly a pound of fish, she says. There’s also fried pork chops and onions, steak and eggs, garlic shrimp — all for under $15. Cash only, of course.
At this point, I’m nearly comatose and just want an iced coffee. An unruffled waitress brings it immediately and lets me linger awhile beneath the ceiling fan, inhaling wafts of garlic in the breeze.
162 Salem St., Boston, 617-241-0202. Cash only.
Pizza: Parziale’s Bakery
There is Pizzeria Regina, and Ernesto’s, and Galleria Umberto. But if you just crave a simple Sicilian slice while meandering around town, no lines and no hassle, go to Parziale’s. They sell cookies and breads, such as the one found at Artu, but there are always pans of pizza atop the counter, $1.70 a slice. In fact, Parziale’s lays claim to the first Sicilian slice in Boston, made in 1907.
“You brought pizza to Boston?” I ask the woman at the counter, trying to drum up conversation. I place a couple of dollars on the counter.
“The first Sicilian,” she corrects me. I want to ask her more, but she’s already disappeared back toward the ovens without a word. There’s nobody else in here, just me and my spongy slice — crisp crust, squishy center, cheese burbling up like browned lava.
80 Prince St., Boston, 617-523-6368, www.parzialebakery.com
Provisions: Monica’s Mercato
Trattoria di Monica and Vinoteca di Monica are two of the neighborhood’s best restaurants — unpretentious, lively, reliable. Their sister market is just the same. If you can get through the turnstile, that is. Yes, this place is so popular that there’s an amusement-park style turnstile in front of the deli counter. Do not try to push through it before your time, lest you end up uncomfortably pressed against the derriere of a hungry patron in search of an Italian sub (a Monica’s special).
Order a sandwich at the counter, or bypass the lines and shop a bit. There’s fresh-made pasta in cases, pappardelle and ravioli, prosciutto di parma, and auricchio stravecchio — a sharp, creamy provolone. The bell has rung at the Eliot School around the corner, and a troop of kids in blue T-shirts barrel through the door, hungry. Imagine having this place as your friendly neighborhood snack bar?
I grab a couple bottles of wine from a cooler and sample a saucy rectangle of pizza — barbecued steak tip, free next to the cash register — before heading on my way.
130 Salem St., Boston, 617-742-4101, www.monicasmercato.com
Coffee and Dessert: Caffe Vittoria
Nancy Caruso urges me to end my odyssey at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street.
“I’ve sampled cappuccino all over the world, and they have the best,” she says.
Really? I’d always assumed it was a cutesy 1950s-style soda shop for haggard tourists who want to play on their phones. But Nancy Caruso is the mayor of the North End, and I trust her.
Good thing. For it is here that I enjoy the single-best cappuccino I’ve ever had in my life. It is as though hot chocolate and crème brulee had a hyper-caffeinated love child. It is rich, creamy, toasty on top, with enough clouds of frothy milk to fashion a neck pillow. I also order chocolate gelato, presented in a silver dish, just like an old-fashioned sundae. Across the way, I spot my Gentleman in Moscow, offsetting his wine with coffee. Outside, two men banter with passersby. A few older ladies sit at the window, hunched over, laughing.
It is getting late, and I need to go. I stand up to leave, half of my cappuccino still in its mug. A waitress looks at me with pity.
“You can’t just leave it!” she says.
She pours it carefully into a paper cup with a lid. Oldies begin to play — the Four Seasons.
Where am I? Walking back toward my car, a doggie bag filled with wine and leftover panini slapping against my leg, I feel as though I’ve slipped through a portal into another world, here on the other side of the Greenway: someplace slower, charged with the offhand energy of goodwill and good food. I am not annoyed by the tourist who stops mid-stride to take a photo of North Square Oyster’s sign. I’m not even disgruntled about the $23 parking fee I fork over near Lewis Wharf. I can smell those meatballs on the seat next to me, after all.