Why I Love Boston: Pasta and Passages

I never gave a gif about food. Food was fuel, nothing more, and foodies, those precious sensualists who moan over every bite, who rattle on about a brunch they ate three years ago, always left me mystified. Listening to their soggy dialogues about risotto, their crisp ruminations about arugula, I’d think: Just eat it and shut up.

Then in 2001 I found myself living in Boston. I was going on a promising first date, which called for a good restaurant. My friend Karen recommended the North End. Either Mamma Maria or Mother Anna’s, she said, I don’t remember which. I can barely remember the date.

What I do remember is my taste buds opening like rosebuds in June. The flavors, the textures, the deep feeling of primal satisfaction — I never knew food could be like that. Thereafter, whenever time and money allowed, I’d go back to the North End. If I was down, in need of comfort, seeking something more than sustenance, there was nothing better than those crooked, garlic-reeking streets.

It was in the North End that I discovered my inner glutton. After consuming a week’s worth of calories at one sitting, after inhaling a cutlet of ridiculously succulent veal, or going totally wolverine on a plate of homemade linguine, I’d saunter over to Bova’s and buy a cannoli to go. On second thought, I’d tell the woman behind the counter, better make it two. Compared with me, Kirstie Alley was a nibbler; Kobayashi was Calista Flockhart.

The cannolis often didn’t survive the cab ride home to Cambridge. As I lifted the first from its white paper sack I’d catch the driver, his nostrils aflutter, shooting me a drooly look in the rearview. I once tipped a cabbie my extra cannoli, and he looked at me with something approaching genuine brotherly love. You’d think I’d given him a Rolex.

When my father died in 2002, I barely knew him. But I knew that he’d been a gourmand, that he’d owned several restaurants, that food was his grand passion and perhaps his only harmless vice. I also knew that he cherished his Italian roots. So the night of his funeral I went to Prezza on Fleet Street. At a small table along the wall I had a solo feast, though I didn’t feel alone. As each dish arrived I felt my old man over my shoulder: a spectral maitre d’, nodding his approval. I ate spinach salad with pancetta and lemon vinaigrette, ricotta-stuffed ravioli tossed with sausage and tomato, grilled lamb chops with broccoli rabe, and for dessert, a caramelized banana ladled over something that looked like a coconut pie and tasted like a sugar-flecked cumulonimbus. My server was named Richard. The bill came to $76.03. I still have the receipt.

Afterward, I needed to walk. I wandered all around the North End and found myself drawn to the home of Paul Revere. Studying its leaded casements, its pitched roof, I wondered if I’d been pushed there by those ur-words: Founding Father. Or was that 322-year-old house, the oldest dwelling in downtown Boston, simply a reminder that the past is never past? I found strange comfort, I think, in some personal version of Faulkner’s famous assertion, in the concept of a perpetual yesterday.

My midnight ride was different from Revere’s. I bought a sack of cannolis and hailed a cab. Flying down Storrow Drive, I watched the timeless river and considered the origins of my indifference to food. My father was a food lover and a deadbeat dad, and maybe a connection between good food and bad dads was forged early, in the deepest folds of my subconscious, where we make so many decisions about our parents.

Food still isn’t my thing, but I’ve learned to respect its power and significance. In Mississippi I’ve eaten barbecued ribs so juicy they made me moan like Robert Johnson. In Zurich, in a café overlooking the Limmat, I ate butter-drenched white asparagus pulled from the ground that morning; it had the aftertaste of champagne. I’ve been able to appreciate epic meals in San Francisco, New Orleans, Berlin, Paris, Las Vegas. And whenever I return to Boston, I make time for an excursion to the North End. I know of nowhere else that serves up pasta to die for, pasta to live for, plus the occasional epiphany, al dente.

J. R. Moehringer wrote his bestselling memoir, The Tender Bar, in a cottage on Brown Street, off Harvard Square.