La Dolce Vita

This is how a day in the North End winds up: sitting in Caffè Graffiti on Hanover Street surrounded by North Enders, each one stumbling over the other to share another story about the neighborhood they love.

All afternoon, native son Anthony Susi has been showing me around. Susi grew up here, and is now chef and owner of Sage. After visiting butcher shops and cafés, barbershops and private clubs, I've come to realize just how much more there is to this neighborhood than restaurants. North Enders are warm, welcoming, and willing to talk until the sun goes down. Though Susi and I started out alone, we picked up two of his friends along the way, each anxious to show off the neighborhood they call “Little Italy.” There's Stephen Passacantilli, a wiry and animated former Web consultant who's now a substitute teacher, and Luigi DeMarco, a beefy guy with a bald pate who runs Caffè Graffiti. They're sipping on beers, smoking a few cigarettes, and chattering about this and that — weekend plans, techno versus rap, cars, computers. Then Passacantilli looks at his watch and announces that it's time for him to go; he's having dinner tonight with his grandmother.

A few eyebrows are raised. “You're making your grandmother cook for you?” Susi asks.

“What? She's alone,” Passacantilli replies. “We have dinner together every night.”

Instantly, the tone changes. What nobler act could there be than keeping your widowed grandmother company? Everyone agrees he should go.

In that simple exchange is everything anyone needs to know about the North End. Though restaurants and food are important parts of life here, there is much more behind those streetside façades. In fact, in the five hours that Susi guides me through the narrow streets, we eat next to nothing. The real pulse of the North End is family and tradition and respect for a vibrant neighborhood that's been sustained by the people who call it home.

The day begins around noon at Sage, Susi's eight-table bistro on Prince Street, where even this early in the day the kitchen is buzzing. Susi has offered to spend a precious day off to show me the North End he knows. He is tall and dark, with an easy smile and long sideburns that slice across his cheekbones — a small gesture of rebellion.

Susi grew up on Hanover Street, and his father, Frank, still owns and runs Abruzzese Meat Market on Salem Street. Though Susi spent countless hours as a boy helping out in his father's shop, he was always more interested in what was going on in the local kitchens.

Like many in the neighborhood, he came of age in the restaurants — busing tables as a teenager and working his way into the kitchen. “Almost everyone around here still picks up a few shifts in the restaurants,” he says.

But Susi's cooking is not your traditional, just-like-Mama-used-to-make Italian fare. He trained at the North End's Davide and Mamma Maria, then made a pilgrimage to Italy, where he worked at a restaurant in his parents' hometown, Sulmona. He also spent time at San Francisco's Grand Café and Campton Place Hotel, and at Boston's Olives and Restaurant Zinc. These experiences have contributed to the unique blend of American and Italian styles on the menu at Sage.

We leave Sage and stop in first at Dello's Caffè, on the corner of Hull and Salem streets. Run by Susi's childhood friend Michael DelloRusso, it's a sliver of a shop, with a short bar and a few tables. The streetside windows and cozy atmosphere make it an ideal spot for an afternoon coffee. But it's DelloRusso, his friends tease, who is the main attraction, as he is handsome and flirtatious. When we arrive, he's behind the bar, shooting the breeze with Stephen Passacantilli.

Theirs was a childhood steeped in tradition. “You never went farther than a couple of blocks — or where you could hear your mother yelling and she could hear you,” Susi says. “Besides, everybody knew everybody, so if you got in trouble on one street, your father would have heard about it already by the time you were able to run home.”

In those days, though, the North End was decidedly rougher than it is today. “People got stabbed over parking spaces,” DelloRusso says. “There's not a single North End guy I know, big or small, who won't stick up for himself. That's just the way you had to be.”

There are still undercurrents of crime: Within a week of my visit an armored truck on Hanover Street was held up in broad daylight. But things are, for the most part, very different now. In fact, there's very little petty crime here, and most residents say they feel safe walking the neighborhood alone at night.

“No one wanted to live down here,” sighs Passacantilli, whose grandfather was Fred Langone, one of the first Italian Americans on Boston's city council. “But I'm glad that it changed.”

DelloRusso agrees. “Now, there's a mutual respect people have.”

As it often does, the conversation turns to the Big Dig. The elevated Central Artery effectively isolated — and perhaps preserved — the North End from the rest of downtown. And now with the Big Dig under way, the isolation is even more pronounced. “It's like the walls of a fortress,” says DelloRusso, “like a lot of the old cities in Italy.”

What will happen when that wall comes down? Over the last 30 years, when outsiders moved in and began paying high rents, many Italian residents made fortunes as landlords or by selling their buildings. The increased income helped gentrify the neighborhood. And though the injection of cash led to a property sell-off — almost every school Susi, DelloRusso, and Passacantilli attended has been converted into luxury condominiums — the trend appears to have stabilized. Still, there is much speculation about the fate of the neighborhood after the Big Dig's completion. Some worry that the neighborhood's character will be lost as more outsiders move in. The new generation, on the other hand, considers change and newcomers a good thing.

“It's cleaned the neighborhood up,” DelloRusso says. “This was a slum, a rough area.” He points out that he, Susi, and Passacantilli are the only Italians in the caffè.

“The tempers are a lot better now,” Susi jokes.

There are other cities in this country that claim to have authentic Little Italys, neighborhoods settled by Italian immigrants that retain the character of the old country. More often than not, they exist because of their pizzerias and trattorias, their chicken parmesans and calzones. If you visit them, you may see a few Italians on the streets. But in most cities, these ethnic pockets have gone the way of New York's storied Little Italy, once the epicenter of Italian-American culture and now essentially lost to suburban flight and rising rents.

Boston's Little Italy is different. It is one of the most tightly knit, thriving Italian neighborhoods in America, making it something of a national treasure. Though threatened by potentially disastrous urban renewal in the '60s, and gentrified in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, it's still largely owned by descendants of the Italian Americans who settled there a century ago.

Of course, the North End has not always been Italian. It is also a treasury of colonial landmarks, including Paul Revere's house, the only surviving Charles Bulfinch-designed church, and the Old North Church, where the lanterns were hung to signal that the British were coming. The Irish made their mark on the area in the 1840s, transforming it from a Brahmin bastion to a crowded working-class immigrant quarter. A decade later, the Irish gave way to the waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Only then came the Italians. Their settlement patterns were delineated according to hometown and occupation: fishermen from Sicily and Naples near the wharf, butchers and bakers from central Italy near Hanover Street. This tendency for families — whole villages, even — to settle together helped give the neighborhood its compactness and unity.

Like many Bostonians, I've spent time in the North End. I've eaten at restaurants such as Prezza, with its candlelit dining room and creative Italian cooking; and Marcuccio's, with its exposed-brick walls and excellent wine list; and Sage, where Susi's combination of Italian and American cooking has brought a new, fresh flavor to the table. I've stopped in at Mike's Pastry Shop for a cannoli, and I had sipped a cappuccino at Caffè Graffiti before. But then I was really just a tourist. I never realized how little I knew about the neighborhood until Susi and his boyhood friends gave me the inside tour.

We finish our coffees and stroll over to North Street. Passacantilli has decided to tag along, and the three of us drop in on their childhood friend who has recently bought and refurbished a 40-year-old barbershop. Richard Firicano Jr., a quiet man in his late twenties with warm hazel eyes and a friendly face, lived his entire life across the street from the shop before buying it five years ago. Though Firicano gave the shop a fresh coat of paint and exposed the original brick walls, little has changed, from the red leather and chrome barber chairs to the services such as straight-razor shaves.

On this day, a young boy of eight who cut patches into his own hair with a pair of kitchen scissors is getting an emergency trim in the same chair where Firicano had his first haircut. Disaster averted, the boy gives the chair up to the next customer, Sal “Bosco” Diecidue, president of the Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca Society, which organizes the Fisherman's Feast, one of the largest Italian festivals in the neighborhood, held every August. (“You can live here for years and never know someone's real name, only their nickname,” explains Susi, who has just learned that Bosco's real name is Sal.)

“It's the closeness of the neighborhood that makes it great,” Firicano says. “Everybody knows everybody. Lots of times it's because you're all family.”

“Yeah, if you didn't like what your mother was cooking, you'd go down the street to your aunt's house,” Diecidue says. He can recall a time in the neighborhood when pushcart vendors strolled the streets, and women did their shopping by lowering baskets from their windows to the street so that the vendors could fill them with vegetables, breads, or meats. Everything was transacted on an honor system; accounts would be settled at the end of the month.

Diecidue offers to show us the society's clubhouse, just around the corner from the barbershop. One of only five such societies left in the North End, this private club serves as a social nexus for its members — and only members of families that hail from the Sicilian fishing village of Sciacca can join. It's nothing fancy — gray linoleum floors, a few pinball machines, and several tables in the center where the members gather for huge pasta dinners. But on the walls is a wealth of historical photographs dating back to the turn of the last century.

Each August, the hundred or so remaining members of this club stage the Fisherman's Feast, to honor the Madonna del Soccorso. The highlight is a parade in which club members carry their statue of the Madonna through the streets of the North End. After a priest blesses the feast, the clubhouse is transformed into a disco, complete with mirror-ball and deejay. “For one night this place is 1976,” says Passacantilli, chuckling.

Back on Prince Street, the neighborhood is bustling with shoppers ducking in and out of the produce stores, fish markets, and butcher shops. At Polcari's Coffee, owner Ralph Polcari watches the afternoon rush. There's more here than just coffee: The shop is also a mecca for everything from dried beans to teas to herbs and spices, some displayed in antique brass bins and all of it sold by the pound or the pinch. Polcari is a grayed, elderly man with sprightly eyes who comes to the shop every day, just as he has since childhood — when his father ran the place. When asked how he keeps up, Polcari's reply is appropriately feisty.

“What am I going to do, sit on the corner watching the world go by?” he asks with a smile. “This is what keeps me young.”

Down the street is Dairy Fresh Candies, a legendary shop whose selection of candies, nuts, and chocolates is indisputably the best in town. Susi says he came here as a boy looking for chocolate snowcaps and sour candies. The tiny store is piled to the ceiling with colorful candies in small bags, nuts of every kind, and gourmet jams and sauces — anything anyone with a sweet tooth could imagine. Susi picks up a panettone, a traditional Italian holiday cake, to share with friends over the weekend.

Co-owner John Reilly — Italian despite his last name — gives us a taste of his latest specialty: pumpkin fudge. It's delicious, creamy, and thick with a wonderful pumpkin pie flavor. Reilly has worked at Dairy Fresh for 18 years, and he and his business partner bought the neighborhood institution from Reilly's uncle, Joseph Mattera, two years ago.

“The neighborhood has changed since this place opened in 1957,” Reilly says. “But you still don't have a better, more loyal customer base than you do here. The only thing we've changed is that now we stock more gourmet items, the kinds of things the newcomers like to buy.”

The other stores along Salem Street are similarly busy. There's Salumeria Italiana, which sells, among other delectables, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (which Susi often buys here for his restaurant), and imported pastas. Everything is straight from the old country. At J. Pace & Son market on Cross Street, Susi orders some prosciutto to use in an appetizer he has planned for tonight. The pungent aroma of Parmesan and other cheeses wafts through the air as we wait for the tiny woman standing behind the counter to cut the tissue-thin slices of meat. As always, Susi and Passacantilli encounter friends old and new, and warm greetings are exchanged.

Our final stop proves to be the best: Susi's father's butcher shop, the Abruzzese Meat Market on Salem Street. Just inside the door are two weathered octogenarians sitting at a card table and talking in Italian. “Those guys have always been here, they come in to shoot the breeze, keep company. They probably don't even speak English,” Passacantilli tells me. In the summertime, men like these line Salem Street, Susi says, where they angle their folding chairs for the perfect view of the comings and goings.

Susi's father is a tall, friendly man with an accent that still speaks of central Italy after more than 40 years in this country. He has owned and run his shop since 1963, and he's witnessed a lot of changes. Like Ralph Polcari, Susi Sr. continues to work because it keeps him feeling young and connected to the neighborhood.

“The best part of living here?” he says. “It's safe. I walk home at two or three in the morning and nobody bothers you. It's the best place to live.”

On our way back to Hanover Street, we pop into the Antique Vase, where Susi sometimes buys flower arrangements for Sage. He confides that many locals buy their flowers here, shunning the new Kabloom on Hanover Street because it's a chain. Ironically, red-haired, blue-eyed owner Patti McPartland is the first non-Italian I've met all day. She moved here 12 years ago straight out of college at the beginning of a career in retail. The flower shop came six years later, as did her fiancé, John Reilly of Dairy Fresh.

“I feel like a native now,” McPartland says. “The best thing about living here is that there's such a feeling of community. It's fun to know everybody you live around, and there's such a wide mix of people, young and old.”

The skies are dark, and the day is drawing to a close. Susi and Passacantilli agree that a stop for beers is the only appropriate way to end the tour, which will finally bring us back to Caffè Graffiti. Before we reach the caffè, though, Susi stops in front of Varese Shoes, an old-fashioned store whose windows show off lots of styles, but particularly pair after pair of children's shoes. “Most of us got our First Communion shoes here,” he says. “But they've also got some cool things I'd wear now.”

It's easy to conjure up corny symbolism in Susi's words. This is, after all, a neighborhood where one shop can see a customer from childhood to adulthood. There is really no reason to leave the North End, because this neighborhood offers the people who live here everything they need.

But the realities behind such symbols are what has kept generation after generation here — and the North End alive and flourishing.

At our window table at Caffè Graffiti, listening to Susi, Passacantilli, and DeMarco tell their rollicking, macho stories, it's evident how easily friends can be made in this neighborhood. It takes little more than stopping and talking to the people you meet. What's more, throughout the past five hours, we've spoken of food and visited restaurants and gourmet shops, but we've eaten only a piece of DelloRusso's mother's cheesecake and a sliver of pumpkin fudge. There is no escaping the fact that food is the lifeblood of the North End. It's how the residents make their livings. It's what brings the people together in their homes, on the streets, and, yes, even in the restaurants. But it's what's behind the food that truly defines the North End.