Mangia Business

It's early morning at Caffè Graffiti, and men wearing tool belts abound. Everyone is speaking Italian, even the barista, the guy behind the bar who looks sort of mean until he smiles. Andrea Bocelli croons incongruously mushy arias on the sound system while these guys talk about soccer, sex, and cannoli. I take inspiration from all the banter, sidle over to the bar, muster up my confidence, and order a cappuccino in textbook Italian. Immediately, the room falls silent — save for Bocelli singing “Con Te Partiro.” The eldest of the pack, a guy with a silver pompadour who's probably a foreman, gives me a look that says, “Oh — look who went to college,” while the rest of the guys eye me suspiciously. I self-consciously look down to make sure I haven't accidentally shown up in a “Kiss Me, I'm Irish” T-shirt. Then I realize that this is the North End and I am a tourist — meaning I don't live in the North End — and as such I should expect to be treated like an alien visiting another planet.

In many ways, the North End is otherworldly, about as close to Italy as any American will get to it on this side of the Mediterranean. Hear that, San Francisco's North Beach? You too, South Philly. And New York — don't even get me started about your pathetic Little Italy. I've been to them all, and Boston's North End is unequivocally the best. It's a veritable microcosm of Italian-American culture, which has everything to do with its defined boundaries — specifically, the slowly disappearing Central Artery, which has insulated this quartier for nearly half a century. Now that the highway is coming down, it's as if the Berlin Wall is falling at the northern tip of Boston proper. Once it's gone, who knows what will happen?

And that's what brings me here now, to take a look at the North End at a moment in time when the area is bracing for the post-Big Dig reunification with the rest of the city. My goal is to assess whether this neighborhood will survive as little more than a haven for tourist-driven restaurants — or thrive as a great food destination.

My out-of-planet experience at Caffè Graffiti is the perfect barometer: While it caters almost exclusively to locals at sunrise, it attracts a more democratic crowd throughout the day and well into the night. And while it may occasionally condescend to tourists (meaning everyone who doesn't live in the neighborhood), it nonetheless serves them delicious coffee, exemplary cannoli — great food. Welcome to the North End.

Midday church bells call worshipers to St. Leonard's for noon Mass. These bells also tell locals and visitors that it's time for lunch, and there are few places in Boston to eat as well as in the North End. That is, if you know where to go. The peril of the tourist-driven dining scene here is that there are plenty of restaurateurs willing to give tourists what they think is Italian food, when it's really Italian-American food, and often at its worst. What's the difference? Well, whenever I try to explain why there's so much red sauce and mozzarella on stereotypical Italian food in America, I use a comparison with the children's game of “telephone,” in which a message is passed from kid to kid down the line. By the time it reaches the last kid the message is unrecognizable. That's how we get shrimp parmigiana (Italians don't put cheese on fish), cappuccinos topped with cinnamon (Italians use only cocoa), and cannoli dipped in rainbow sprinkles (Italians rarely use sprinkles). Capisce? The recipes get distorted, rewritten, or reinvented, and in the end they all read, “Add sauce; top with mozzarella; bake.”

There are many options in the North End for a proper sit-down lunch, though the better restaurants are open just at night or for lunch only on weekends. I'm told by a local that I must visit Galleria Umberto Rosticceria, a hole-in-the-wall that's unusual in that it's open only for lunch. “Everybody goes there for pie,” she assures me, referring to pizza, and she warns me that there's always a line — which there was when I arrived at the dark and dreary L-shaped dining area. A sign on the wall warns: “Phone orders are to go only not to be eaten here.” I couldn't help but wonder, “Who wants to eat in this room?” A lot of people, apparently, and I could see why: The pizza (95¢) was a Sicilian-style square, thick and moist, topped with ample tomato sauce, just enough mozzarella, and a perfect crust. I loved the sausage, cheese, and spinach calzone ($3.50), a big, hefty pocket packing plenty of garlic. I washed it all down with a three-buck bottle of Peroni.

With fish in mind I headed to Daily Catch, which, second to Galleria Umberto, has one of the smallest dining rooms in the North End. There was a line to get in here, too, so they must be doing something right — something like the crispy, fried calamari served with a mild, sweet marinara on the side. I ordered the “Sicilian-style” clams, bathed in white wine, lemon, garlic, and herbs, and found the clams to be tender and briny, but the broth off balance because the wine had not been cooked out. The linguine, on the other hand, was excellent, with a white clam sauce packed with garlic and clams.

On another afternoon, a raven-haired beauty in a pair of skin-tight black pants was standing outside Il Villaggio Ristorante inviting, in broken English, passersby to come in for lunch. I confess, I couldn't resist this siren's song. Inside, the tiny room was filled nearly entirely with men. Everyone was pretending to be talking about business, but nobody was listening; they were all watching the hostess walk to and fro. I managed to order a seafood salad made with sautéed calamari and mussels that was very generous and quite good. The pastas, on the other hand, were mediocre, especially the naked, sticky linguine that came with the chicken parmigiana. Still, the view was lovely.

At Dolce Vita Ristorante I ordered a bowl of pasta e fagioli and was surprised at how different it was from the version I make at home. Here it came with large, white cannellini beans and an assortment of pasta shapes, with lots of chopped-up pancetta sitting in a buttery, clear broth. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, but absolutely delicious. Authentic Italian? No, more Italian-American, but excellent nonetheless.

Inside L'Osteria I found a roomful of tourists, many speaking German — just like in Italy! They must have all come on one bus because the waiters were running around frantically. I passed my time reading the cheesy paper placemat, which featured a map of “sunny Italy,” complete with highlights for tourists, as if, if I closed my eyes real hard and concentrated on “Femina” blaring from the speakers, I might open them and be standing in the Trevi Fountain with Anita Ekberg. For kicks I spoke Italian to my waiter. He sighed and suggested the veal saltimbocca alla Romana. (Did he know I was dreaming of Rome?) It was gorgeous, the tender veal layered with prosciutto and mozzarella, baked with dry white wine and ample mushrooms. And it came in a very generous American portion that I'm sure the Germans liked very much.

The entrance to Pagliuca's makes it look like a tavern, but I was sure it wasn't a bar when I opened the door and saw the Pope staring back at me. There he was, a youthful John Paul II in a photograph blessing an old Italian lady sporting a black veil, who I presumed is or was the matriarch of this establishment. Instead of just one waitress I was tag-teamed by a pair of Marias, both engaging and friendly, who talked me through the menu with aplomb. I tried the veal braciolettini, tiny rollatine stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, then sautéed in olive oil. They were moist, tender, and oozing cheese. One of the Marias kissed her fingers when I ordered the spaghetti carbonara, which turned out to be one of the richest, creamiest versions of this dish I've ever had. Was the food here authentic? Not really, more Italian-American than Italian, but it was still delicious, and the service was terrific.

The best fish I found anywhere, however, was at Pomodoro, where the zuppa di pesce was simply fabulous. The bowl was brimming with clams, mussels, chunks of salmon, and rings of calamari, bathed in a white wine stock perfumed with garlic, sage, basil, and tomatoes. The fried calamari here was perfect, too, the giant rings coated and crisped without a hint of oil, and served with a sweet marinara.

Dinnertime in the North End has an entirely different feel. At night, Hanover Street is lit up from top to bottom with signs ranging from shabby chic to garish Las Vegas. North and Salem streets are less bright and busy, and the lanes in between are dark and romantic. On weeknights it's possible to wander around, peeking into restaurants, picking and choosing where to eat without reservations. (Weekends, of course, are another story.) Compared with what's available at lunchtime, the choices after dark are far better.

Mamma Maria is easily the most attractive restaurant in the North End. The name, however, doesn't match the décor. Mamma Maria says family-style abbondanza; the décor says New England Yankee Sunday best. The place is run efficiently, professionally, and coolly, and Saturday nights are chaos. The object seems to be to get as many diners in and out as possible, and I was plowed through dinner with swift cordiality. A seafood sampler featuring Maine lobster, local oysters, marinated shrimp, poached mussels, and calamari was fresh and excellent. A grilled sirloin of lamb, served over creamy white-corn polenta with black trumpet mushrooms and crispy cauliflower, was one of the tenderest pieces of lamb I've ever had, and so sweet, it tasted like teriyaki. The homemade Tuscan-style pappardelle with roasted Sonoma rabbit, pancetta, and rosemary was flavorful, but the pasta ribbons were stuck together, having not been dressed correctly. No matter; the warm apple crespelle with butterscotch gelato for dessert were so fabulous I couldn't eat them fast enough.

I like the feel of Taranta, one of the hipper dining rooms in the North End, with tight communal seating and warm candlelight. With my waiter's encouragement I tried the pan-roasted mussels perfumed with sweet Sicilian marsala, pancetta, and shallots. I was glad for his advice; they were delicious. I was also thrilled to see spaghetti a ricci di mare, bottarga e peperoncino, a sauce made with sea urchin that is famous in Sicily. It had a rich consistency, but turned out to be less flavorful than the mussels.

I expected a similar experience at nearby Lucca Restaurant and Bar, a very attractive space with dim lighting and a great sound system. Because I dined there with two beautiful women one night, I got to watch our waiter play Tom Cruise with them, evading questions with winks and boyish smiles. I really liked the vibe here, but this place is more about scene than entirely about cuisine. The rigatoni al cinghiale, supposedly made with braised wild boar, certainly tasted porky, but not wild by any means. The pasta was expertly prepared, however, with a rich, reddish-brown tomato sauce topped with a grating of ricotta salata. Maiale alla Milanese, a twist on the veal classic, was made here with pork that wasn't pounded at all but, rather, left thick and fried beautifully.

In complete contrast, décor-wise, is Assaggio, where Botticelli muses dance half-naked on the walls and fake grapevines droop from the ceiling. In other words, it's my parents' fantasy dining room. Diners and staff alike are locals, and the bar feels like an Italian Cheers (“Norm-a!”). One night, a buddy and I took a seat at the bar and tasted a hot antipasto for two comprised of grilled lamb spidini, a pile of crispy calamari, a bowl of tasty marinara and two mini arancini — delicious fried rice balls filled with mozzarella and ground meat. The bartender recommended we try Antinori Orvieto Classico for $25, advice for which we tipped her generously.

Similarly ostentatious but certainly more upscale is Ristorante Fiore, where my favorite seat in the house was in front of bartender Tina Reed, who makes a perfect Campari soda. I ordered the insalate di pesce made with shrimp, calamari, octopus, clams, mussels, and crabmeat tossed with red and yellow bell peppers. The seafood tasted fresh, but its dressing was a flavorless olive oil and lemon marinade that desperately needed salt and maybe a healthy pinch of parsley. Fiore is known for its bombolotti pasta, which look like giant rigatoni with wagon-wheel spokes inside. Served with a simple marinara, they were excellent, and very, very filling. I also popped into Cantina Italiana, Fiore's sibling and definitely her dowdy older sister. The bar was mobbed, so I contented myself with glasses of Chandon Brut sparkling wine poured fresh-popped from splits for only $9, which is a great deal.

I also found interesting, uncommon pastas at Maurizio's, a dimly lit, crowded place populated by romantic couples whispering by candlelight. There I tried giant bowls of malloreddus al ragu d'agnello, made with a Sardinian pasta that look like cavatelli and served in a savory meat sauce that consisted of lamb, beef, veal, minced vegetables, red wine, and ripe tomatoes. It was outstanding.

Strega, just across the street, is one of the newest restaurants on Hanover, and is often crowded, especially at the bar, where a shelf filled with Strega bottles gives off an amber glow. I sampled gamberi in padella, jumbo shrimp sautéed with garlic, lemon, and white wine. It tasted acidic because, once again, the wine had not been cooked off properly. No complaints, however, about the crisp, tender, and perfectly prepared calamari fritti.

Just around the corner is Carmen, a tiny newcomer where one beautiful evening I sat at the bar facing windows that open onto tranquil North Square and tasted the antipasti del giorno. Most of the small dishes here were $4 or $5 a plate, perfect for grazing with a glass of wine from the well-written wine list. The olives marinated with hot pepper and orange zest were fabulous; the roasted cipollini glazed with saba — which I was told is a wine reduction that's the base of balsamic vinegar — were as soft as caramel and perfectly sweet and sour.

Back on Hanover Street I stopped in at Enoteca Bricco, now in the hands of executive chef Marisa Iocco, formerly of Galleria Italiana, La Bettola, and South End Galleria. The food here is more “Cal-Ital” than Italian — a mix of fresh ingredients, Italian recipes, and American interpretation. I couldn't get over the fantastic octopus “carpaccio,” poached and thinly sliced and magically fused together like pistachio-flecked mortadella, served with hearty, full-grown arugula, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a lemon-parsley condimento. My favorite item on the menu, however, was the Big Night timpano, a pasta drum stuffed with tiny meatballs and a hauntingly rich braised meat ragu. Where was Louis Prima when we needed him?

I had similarly great pasta at Prezza, which takes its name from a small hill town in the Abruzzi region of Italy from which chef/owner Anthony Caturano's grandmother hailed. Caturano takes his nonna's peasant-fare recipes and kicks them up a notch with local ingredients. Two pastas in particular stand out: his savory-sweet pumpkin ravioli with brown butter, sage, lobster, and mascarpone, and his earthy chestnut ravioli with duck confit and roasted pears. These are the kinds of pastas you find in cutting-edge restaurants in Italy, made with ingredients that are in season and whatever else is at hand. Bravo, Anthony.

I'm also a fan of chef Anthony Susi's cooking at Sage, where he, too, prepares modern Italian without fear of the spaghetti-and-meatball brigade boycotting him. (In fact, they probably have, which is a good thing.) His hand-rolled potato gnocchi are exactly what this highly abused pasta should be: light as feathers, creamy, and tasting of, yes, potatoes. Susi served them one night with pulled rabbit, sage, and brown butter; they were magnificent. So were his pecorino and potato-stuffed agnolotti, half-moon-shaped pillows tossed with an amazingly rich truffle butter sauce. Surely, forward-looking restaurants like Carmen, Bricco, Strega, and Sage are not what most tourists expect to find here in the North End, but I can only hope they are the future of dining here.

Some real estate agents measure the appeal of neighborhoods by the number of Starbucks that take root. Others see the coffee chain as an arbiter of homogenization, rising real estate prices, and loss of character. In the North End there are only two Starbucks, and that's fine by the residents of this community for two reasons. One, because with all the fabulous cafés here, who needs 'em? And two, if Starbucks expands, it might be a sign of what many here are afraid will happen: gentrification.

Bruce “Albie” Alba — “Please,” he pleads, “don't call me Bruce” — owns Alba's Produce on Parmenter Street. At age 36 he's one of the newer generation of merchants, and thinks change is good. “New people coming here is good for the neighborhood,” Alba says. “The old Italians are disappearing anyway. We need new people here.”

As we talk, a tour group gathers. The guide, a young woman on familiar terms with Alba, grabs a bunch of broccoli di rape stalks and explains to the group of mostly women: “This is Italian broccoli. It is very bitter, but very good.” Collectively, they ahhh. At the same time a brunette Carmela Soprano look-alike walks into the store and snickers. “Next she's gonna teach 'em how to boil watah,” she says. Alba smirks, then winks at me. Welcome to the North End.