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How the North End became Boston’s little Italy

And why, just like in the big Italy, its cuisine is more diverse than you might think.

Amalia Biagi in the window of her pasta shop in 1968 (above left); off-duty waiters Maurizio Badolato and Anthony Pezzano speak to women on Hanover Street in 1985.
Photographs Ted Dully/Globe file
Amalia Biagi in the window of her pasta shop in 1968 (above left); off-duty waiters Maurizio Badolato and Anthony Pezzano speak to women on Hanover Street in 1985.

An informed observer walking through the North End can discern a history that is much more complex than the Prince spaghetti ads with young Anthony Martignetti running home for his mother’s pasta.

In 1630, this was not the “Italian” North End; it was the City of Boston. Home to English ship captains and a growing population of artisans and merchants, its street names — such as Prince and Hanover — would come to reflect loyalty to the Hanoverian royal family. There are no Italians buried in Copp’s Hill cemetery, but there are bodies of early African-American residents of the neighborhood.

Over the following decades, waves of immigrants filled boardinghouses and tenements. There were German-speaking Jews, and then the Irish. Successive waves of settlers would leave the neighborhood as opportunities appeared. The North End’s population has always been on the move.

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Remnants of early layers remain today. Walk up Salem Street from Cross Street. This was the heart of the Jewish settlement — after all, “Salem” is “Shalom,” and if you look up, you can see a Star of David in stone and the sign of a former Hebrew school. Bova’s, the 24-hour bakery on Salem Street, was originally a grocery store owned by the Rabinowitz family, descendants of whom founded the Stop & Shop grocery empire. And there is the former North Bennet Street settlement house, where Italian women were taught to “assimilate”: Stop using garlic and oil, and boil everything.

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Between 1880 and 1930, large numbers of Italians arrived. But they did not consider themselves “Italian” — after all, Italy had only recently been unified, and then, as today, Italians are “Italian” only when they leave. Not even “Sicilian” was a clear marker — those Sicilians from Sciacca, for instance, kept themselves apart. Today’s summer feasts are run by groups with their own regional antecedents — St. Agrippina’s Feast in August, to name one, is linked to Mineo in Sicily — which is why there have to be so very many of them. They do, however, all feature fried dough, calzone, and syrupy slush concessions. That today less than 30 percent of North End residents are of Italian descent doesn’t change the fact that Italian food is the main draw for outsiders.

A view of the neighborhood today.
Aprill Brandon
A view of the neighborhood today.

Guidebooks direct you to “authentic” Italian food. Enjoy it, but if you ask one of the old guys sitting on a stoop or at Caffe dello Sport what “authenticity” means, he’ll shrug and say it’s just marketing. His authentic is his grandmother’s food, and that’s it.

There is wonderful food to be had in three basic styles: the remnants of la cucina povera, poor people’s food, in pasta e fagioli and other simple dishes of pasta, tomatoes, beans, garlic; Italian-American cuisine like fettuccine Alfredo; and the “cheffy” inventions of nuova cucina Italiana. For our money, you can’t do better than follow your nose to places like Antico Forno for its spicy mussels, its potato gnocchi, its roast lamb. Artu, over on Prince Street, is a favorite of expat Italians.

If you listen to the kitchen staff doing the cooking, you will hear, as you do now in Italy, new voices, many of them Spanish. Jose Duarte, from Peru, runs Taranta. And, famously, some of the North End’s best pasta, at Bricco, was long made by a Russian woman. That’s amore. That’s America.

Merry White is a cultural anthropologist at Boston University. Her most recent book is “Coffee Life in Japan.” Gus Rancatore is the cofounder of Toscanini’s in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter at @BostonGlobeMag.