Boston’s North End has come unstuck in time. I think it was the cheering that did it: hundreds of toasted bar patrons wearing blue Italia jerseys screaming with joy as Italy went up 1-0 against England in the World Cup match. The echoes are still bouncing off the narrow alleys if you listen carefully.
The red-brick tenements that once lined the cobbled streets are now upscale restaurants and condominiums sold off to the highest bidder. The floods of Italian immigrants and their children have moved on; replaced by floods of tourists, young professionals, and business owners. Even my beloved Prince Pasta hasn’t been local since 1987–they’re a lone brick in a massive Spanish-owned food conglomerate based in Madrid. Little Anthony would hardly recognize them.
This isn’t all bad, though.
Those toasted bar patrons I mentioned? 99% of them American-born. Maybe their grandparents or parents came here from Italy, but like me, they’re first or second generation Americans now. Those blue Italia jerseys were purchased with good ol’ American greenbacks.
Ever since I can remember, the North End was packed with restaurants, a few designer shops, and a lot of historic attractions. Stiff competition is good for the consumer–with so many Italian restaurants and cafes vying for your dollar, the quality of your experiences will always be top notch. The Italian food in this neighborhood is world-class. It rivals anything that comes out of New York, Sicily, or the Pope’s house. A lower population (barely 25% of its 44,000 peak during the influx of immigrants in the 1930s) means less community services are required, like schools, which leaves more room for development.
But not enough room for parking. Good luck with that.
I’m not a foofy coffee type of guy, generally speaking. I like my coffee black, my beer dark, and my steak rare. So, this was my first caffe latte experience, appropriately at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street. This is a legendary spot directly next to the equally renowned Mike’s Pastry. The two have conspired for decades trying to turn me into a fat piece of garbage.
Ok. It was fucking glorious. The steamed milk was thick, frothy, and buttery–it added a texture and dimension to coffee that I’d never tasted before. A true complement to the bitterness and acidity of a well-made espresso. The sfogliatella was constructed with two million layers of flaky pastry baked around a rich lemon custard. Are you sick and/or aroused yet? Good.
For a moment, sitting in that coffee shop with Italy vs England in the background, I felt new. I felt slow, too, in a good way. Ironic, given the surge of caffeine pulsing through my veins at that moment, but I was in my happy place. The world was no longer in a hurry. My next sip of nectar was my only concern. I felt connected to the history that soaks these streets. I wanted to climb the statue of Paul Revere (that was the caffeine). It re-awakened that desire most people have to drop everything and move to Europe to become a travel writer and work the vineyards in the summer. Not that I’ve looked into it.
That dreamy, haze-filled moment lasted briefly because Caffe Vittoria is cash only.
So, I wandered down Hanover Street…
…for an ATM of which there were many. Yeah, that whole gentrification and development thing again. That should have made for a quick trip while L finished her coffee at our table. But the ATM across the street was out of order. And the one at the end of the block wasn’t reading my card.
I kept walking. The streets were crowded with tourists and soccer fans heading to dinner and taking in the sights. I heard so many different languages. I love that about Boston and city life in general. I counted Spanish, French, Italian, and German within two blocks. I passed two older Italian men standing on the sidewalk holding a bottle of wine. The shorter man was describing, in his broken English, the differences between cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, while the bald one politely refused to accept the gift. For another moment, I time traveled.
Finally, I came to the statue of Paul Revere. Families and tourists were posing for photos and reading the placards. The North End is a snapshot of history. There is still an “old world” feel down here despite the intrusion of new world amenities and baggage. It’s a reminder of what existed before and what might exist in the future and how they can peacefully co-exist. When I have children, I’ll take them here. And I’ll be sure to bring cash so I don’t pay a $3.50 fee again. Thanks, Paul.