Salt Your Way to the Perfect Eggplant

So, that's why they call it an "eggplant!"
An eggplant before it matures and ripens. Still not sure how they got their name. (Photo: Steve Albert)

Eggplant, or aubergine as it’s known in England, is not incredibly popular (at least not in America). It has a poor reputation of being bitter and soggy at times. That notoriety often leaves the lowly eggplant cast aside in favor of more familiar produce like carrots and green beans–the whores of the vegetable kingdom.

Eggplants also look weird. What the hell am I supposed to do with a deformed purple football?

The answer: cut it up and salt the hell out of it.

But, It Looks like Grimace, the McDonald’s Character…

I didn’t mean that violently. When prepared and cooked properly, eggplant is incredibly smooth, soft, and creamy–think zucchini on heroin. However, the older and larger the eggplant, the more likely it will be bitter. Mature eggplants also contain more water which makes them prone to sogginess when cooked.

To overcome this obstacle, salt the eggplant heavily prior to cooking. The salt draws out the bitter liquid and leaves less moisture inside. It also seasons the eggplant at the same time. The end result is a fantastic bitter-free vegetable that should make more frequent appearances on American dinner tables.

It should be noted that smaller eggplants, like the Chinese versions available in many Asian restaurants and groceries, generally do not require heavy salting as they are more tender and less bitter. They do, however, cost significantly more.

Preparation

One-inch cubes are ideal for sautéing–the eggplant maintains its shape better in cube form. For grilling, roasting, and frying, go with slices about 1/4″ thick.

Tip: If you plan on grilling, don’t peel the eggplant! Leave the skin in tact so the soft flesh stays together on the grill or you’ll be left with a puddle of vegetable matter. You can easily remove the skin after it’s roasted if you desire.

Place the cubes into a large mixing bowl (or place slices onto a large tray) and hit all sides with salt. I usually use about 1/2 cup salt or more per whole eggplant. Coat each piece thoroughly and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

eggplant-closeup

After a while, you’ll see some brownish liquid on the surface. When you’re ready to cook, wipe off the bitter liquid and excess salt with a damp paper towel.

Tip: I prefer wiping away the salt instead of rinsing. Running it under water re-introduces too much moisture and washes away some flavor which sort of defeats the purpose. The eggplant has to be relatively dry before cooking. Rinsing makes that more difficult.

At this point, feel free to add more seasonings, like cracked black pepper, fresh chopped oregano, and some olive oil, perhaps. Maybe a little crushed red pepper flake if you like-a-da-heat.

Cooking

Eggplant doesn’t take very long once it hits the heat, but you must cook it thoroughly. Undercooked eggplant is crunchy, bitter, and downright unpleasant. Keep it over medium heat until soft and cooked through but not mushy. If it turns into the consistency of mashed over-ripened bananas then you’ve gone too far.

Don’t overcrowd the pan when sautéing, but keep in mind that you have some wiggle room as the eggplant will shrink slightly while cooking. Toss occasionally over medium-high heat.

Before grilling, brush the slices with olive oil to prevent sticking. Grill each side over medium-high heat until soft and tender. To achieve those beautiful grill marks, don’t mess with the slices after you put them on. Let them cook and only flip once.

 

Recipe: Eggplant Parmesan

Now that you have all this eggplant prepared, here’s my favorite recipe for eggplant parmesan. Laura and I look forward to this meal each week on Prince Spaghetti Day which non-Bostonians will recognize as Wednesday.

Ingredients:
  • 1 medium eggplant (about 1 to 1.5 lbs) sliced and salted
  • 1 lb dry spaghetti
  • 4-5 cups tomato sauce*
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp black pepper
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp dry thyme
  • 4 cups Panko bread crumbs
  • olive oil
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese

*Note: 1 jar of store-bought tomato sauce is 3 cups (24oz). That isn’t nearly enough sauce for my taste, especially if I’m using delicious homemade sauce. I typically use at least 4 cups, so adjust accordingly.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While you wait, combine the flour and dry spices in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. In a second bowl, scramble the four eggs. In a third bowl, add the Panko bread crumbs.

Mise en place
A snapshot of my mise en place — a French culinary term for “putting in place.” It refers to the organization and arrangement of all the ingredients that a chef will need throughout a shift. It’s an essential aspect of any professional kitchen and an incredibly useful habit in any home kitchen as well.

Take a slice of eggplant and “dredge” (completely coat) it in the seasoned flour. Then dunk the slice in the egg mixture until it’s coated. Finally, dredge it in the bread crumbs. Do this “dry-wet-dry” process for every slice.

Once the eggplant is breaded, it’s time to employ the classic shallow fry technique. Add about 3-4 tsp of olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat. There should be enough oil to coat the pan but the eggplant shouldn’t be completely submerged in oil.

Fry it up. A second pan in the background to get ahead.
Fry it up! Note the second pan in the background to stay ahead of the game.

Cook for about 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown on the outside and soft in the center. Do not overcrowd the pan! Break out a second pan if you need to capitalize on time and space. Place finished slices on a cooling tray or a baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain excess oil. Hit them with a little sprinkle of kosher salt before they cool.

Note: Depending on how much you end up frying, you may need to change out the oil after a while. Frying food in dirty oil is bush league. Carefully discard the old oil and burned bits. Replace with fresh olive oil.

Golden brown and delicious!
Golden brown and delicious!

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a 2-inch baking dish, begin with a layer of sauce on the bottom then add half the fried eggplant slices. Add another layer of sauce and sprinkle on half the cheese. Add the remainder of the eggplant and top with more sauce and the rest of the cheese. Bake until hot and just starting to brown on top–about 20-25 minutes.

Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and follow the instructions on the package–anywhere from 7 to 9 minutes for al dente. Drain the cooked pasta, return it to the pot, add the tomato sauce, and put it back on the stove over high heat for less than a minute. The sauce will thicken ever so slightly and the noodles will absorb the sauce’s flavor.

Never present a bowl of dry pasta with some sauce poured in the middle!

To be honest, Laura and I usually skip the baking step entirely and just eat the fried eggplant with spaghetti. That’s exactly what happened tonight. It’s funny–when I first met Laura she didn’t eat many vegetables. Today, my eggplant is the number one requested dish in our apartment. Try it out and leave a comment!

Monks in Spencer, Massachusetts Brew The First American Trappist Ale

St Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, MA
(Photo: John Phelan)

“We really brew, on a practical level, to sustain a way of life. Plus, it kind of brightens up Sunday suppers. (laughs)” — Father Isaac Keeley

St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts has always been known for two things: fruit preserves and Trappist monks in long robes.

For more than 60 years, the humble monks have sold fantastic locally sourced jams and jellies of all varieties (branded as Trappist Preserves) to maintain their monastery and support their quiet way of life. It’s available in many grocery stores throughout New England and also online. But, even stoic monks with kick-ass jelly are susceptible to economic downturns and inflation.

A few years ago, the monks realized that the rising costs and expenses of maintaining an aging monastery slowly exceeded the income from their regional jelly operation. Cutting back on those wildly extravagant jelly parties didn’t seem to help, so the monks started researching other ways to generate income. They eventually settled on a truly legendary and potentially lucrative part of their heritage: beer.

A Rich History

Let’s begin by saying: Trappist monks don’t fuck around when it comes to beer. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years in Europe and keep a close watch on the brewing process. To date, there are only ten monasteries in the world that are legally allowed to brew and label their product as an official Trappist beer. St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer is the only monastery in the U.S. with that privilege. That’s an impressive start. (No pressure, guys!)

In 2010, the Abbey dispatched two monks on a fact-finding mission to get educated on the history of Trappist beer, the art of brewing, and the legalities of distributing on a smaller, regional scale (much like their jelly operation). They rubbed elbows with brewers and distributors at the Belgian Beer Fest in Boston, MA–an event that I attended but only vaguely remember.

Word of the monks’ interest in the real family business traveled fast. Their European counterparts grew concerned. What did jelly makers know about Belgian beer? And, furthermore, what did Americans know about Belgian beer?

Hit The Books, Kid

In December 2010, Father Isaac Keeley, a former potter at St. Joseph’s, and another monk moved to Belgium to learn how to brew directly from their brew-master brothers in the motherland. They also had to convince the Europeans that they were indeed serious, capable, and committed to establishing the first Trappist brewery in America.

Eventually, the Europeans warmed up to the idea of an American Trappist counterpart. However, their initial fear was that St. Joseph’s would go too big too fast and ultimately fail–a common concern for any new business. The Euros offered three key pieces of advice that any brewery (or small business for that matter) should take:

  1. Identify what you don’t know. New to brewing? Hire a skilled, experienced brewing engineer to oversee the operation. Don’t try to do it all yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing!
  2. Do it right. Build a modern, state-of-the-art facility. Don’t cheap out on vital parts, equipment, and infrastructure for your operation.
  3. Baby steps. Start with a single beer for the first five years. Focus on that product, perfect it, build a reputation, and grow slowly but steadily.

Meanwhile, back home, the monks debated over what would be the most expensive project St. Joseph’s Abbey had ever undertaken. Jelly-making was easy and familiar; brewing was an unscouted monster. But, everyone agreed that something had to be done about the aging buildings and condition of the grounds. In the end, over 85% of the brothers voted in favor of opening a brewery.

The First Sip

Thanks in part to the established success of Trappist Preserves, the monks were able to secure a bank loan for an amount they won’t disclose. They built a multi-million dollar brewery in Spencer and hired Hubert de Halleux, a highly qualified Belgian master brewer who has helped breweries across the world, to oversee the operation and offer valuable consultation. Father Isaac became the Brewery Director and currently runs the day-to-day production. He can be seen walking around the brewery in his traditional robes–the rest of the monks on the production staff wear normal work clothes.

Over 20 different test batches later, the monks finally settled on a recipe they are proud to call Spencer Trappist Ale (6.5% ABV)–a slightly cloudy, golden brown, sweet ale that traditional Trappist fans will surely recognize.

monk-beer
After years of studying, testing, and tasting, St. Joseph’s Abbey proudly presents Spencer Trappist Ale (Photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)

In December 2013, Father Isaac returned to Belgium with a suitcase full of freshly brewed Massachusetts beer hoping to receive his brothers’ blessing. He delivered a PowerPoint presentation, answered questions, and poured glasses. Spencer Trappist Ale was approved unanimously and there was even an applause after the vote. It was enough to bring a tear to a slightly buzzed monk’s eye.

Spencer Trappist Ale went on sale this year and is currently only available in Massachusetts. Unlike jelly, alcohol is regulated by the ATF–a government agency notorious for having their underwear tangled up in vicious bunches most days. They get a little grouchy.

The monks plan on slowly expanding in the U.S. with the hopes of eventually selling their beer internationally. It will take steady sales over a few years and some degree of cooperation from the government, but so far, the skies look promising.

For more about the monks, the brewery, and St. Joseph’s Abbey, check out this video from CNN Money.

Fireworks and Hurricanes

America’s most patriotic holiday is here! And, for most of the eastern seaboard, so is Hurricane Arthur. Laura and I kicked off the celebratory weekend in true American style by sleeping in late on a Swedish-made bed and rolling around in Egyptian cotton sheets. Then I made some delicious dark roasted Ethiopian coffee in a Chinese-built coffee maker and prepared for more rain, thunderstorms, and strong winds.

Beach goers and vacationers around New England must be enraged. Prices for the already costly hotel rooms in coastal madhouses like Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Newport, Rhode Island jump exponentially during Fourth of July weekend–the absolute most popular time for visitors and tourists. And we willingly pay those outrageous prices! That tells you how shitty the weather in New England is the rest of the year.

For once, my negligence pays off, though. I failed to check my schedule weeks earlier and didn’t book our summer beach trip in time inadvertently saving us from wasting our Fourth of July stuck in a small, yet outlandishly expensive, hotel room with flat pillows and basic cable. Score one for procrastination!

So, thanks to hurricanes and negligence, instead of sitting oceanside with clumps of sand between my toes, sun in my face, and a cold drink in my hand… I’m sitting window-side with two mischievous cats, watching the rain fall, and sipping a bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon whiskey courtesy of Angel’s Envy. (Twitter: @Angels_Envy)

Angel's Envy -- It’s “nectar of the gods,” as they say. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey finished in port barrels. 750mL 43.3% ABV / 96.6 Proof
Angel’s Envy — It’s “nectar of the gods,” as they say. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey finished in port barrels. 750mL 43.3% ABV / 96.6 Proof

An incredibly smooth finish. Like butter doing the moonwalk on ice while complimenting a super attractive woman smooth. When it comes to bourbon whiskey and making love, let’s face it, it’s almost always about the finish. It’s no surprise considering this stuff comes from master distiller Lincoln Henderson whose name is proudly etched on the front of the bottle. Henderson is responsible for two other whiskey products I know and love: Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.

Vanilla, berry, and spicy notes hit the front palate right away. There is a pleasant lack of woodiness that many bourbon whiskeys have. Whiskey aged in small oak barrels tends to have that over-oaked and tannic quality that can be overpowering and a turn-off for some. Overall, Angel’s Envy is a remarkable balance between wood, oak/tannins, and spice with a finish so smooth that Laura didn’t even furrow her brow after tasting it from my glass.

A Silver Lining

When a hurricane passes, it sucks all of the nearby storm cells up and takes them along for a ride out to the northern Atlantic. That means the weather after a hurricane is typically dry and warm. Good news for those poor beach bums that were forced indoors today.

Happy Fourth of July! May your weekend hold plenty of warm, dry weather and cold, stiff drinks.

From Naples With Love

Worcester is a city that is quite rough around the edges. It’s like a cannoli coated with thumbtacks and arsenic; if your system can somehow handle the rough exterior you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful variety of flavors in the center.

“Restaurant Row” is the tasty center of the filled pastry. It’s a famous stretch of Shrewsbury Street where many of the city’s top restaurants and bars live. There is a healthy mix of new and old here; modern conglomerate-owned bistros sit just steps away from classic diners and family-owned restaurants. Take a walk down Shrewsbury Street on a summer night and you’ll come across young bar patrons & revelers getting liquored up next to middle-aged professionals out for a gourmet cocktail and a well-cooked snack. You might even see a drunk girl yelling at her boyfriend and searching for her cellphone.

There is always an interesting crowd.

Death of a Car Salesman

The newest member in the pack of Italian restaurants in Worcester is Volturno. Bringing passion and cuisine straight out of Naples, they arrive onto the scene to thunderous applause and critical acclaim. Recently, Volturno was chosen as Best New Restaurant of 2014 and Best Pizza 2014 by Worcester Magazine. They are constantly featured on local television and numerous other food publications, too. Deservedly so. We’ll get to that.

Volturno was built inside the old Buick dealership on Shrewsbury Street near the I-290 overpass. My father bought a car here in the late 90’s: a classic old-man white Buick LeSabre complete with luggage rack, fake convertible Presidential roof, and silver hood ornament. I distinctly remember being a kid, sitting on an uncomfortable metal chair waiting for him to finish haggling with the car salesman over white-wall tires and stain-resistant floor mats.

Out of the Wood-Fired Ashes…

It’s really pleasing to see how Volturno transformed the space. Parking in a freshly paved lot and walking along smooth concrete feels strange at first, but entering the restaurant will make you forget a car dealership ever existed here.

Incredibly high ceilings, bright atmosphere, super clean, and very spacious.
Incredibly high ceilings, bright atmosphere, super clean, and very spacious.

“Open” is a great way to describe it. Fucking gorgeous is even better. The windows stretch from floor to ceiling and there is a large, deep square bar in the center of the dining area. During the day, sunlight hits every corner. At night, the hanging lights give off a warm glow that you can see from the highway.

The tables have that reconditioned wood thing going on which gives the place a very natural and relaxed vibe. If all car dealerships looked like this, then I’d be in big trouble financially.

The bar is remarkably deep and spacious which makes it perfect for eating and sharing multiple plates.
The bar is remarkably deep and spacious which makes it perfect for eating and sharing multiple plates.

The back of the restaurant is home to two large wood-fire pizza ovens; the most essential piece of equipment for making a true Neopolitan pizza. Workers shuffle pies in and out surgically every few minutes.

One of the wood-fire pizza ovens. The oven itself is a work of art, but what it can create is even more special.
Wood-fire pizza oven. The oven itself is a work of art, but what it can create is even more special.

Volturno fires the oven up to 900 degrees as per master pizza-making guidelines set forth by the Italian government. The owner, Greg Califano, traveled to Italy to become a certified pizzaiolo. The intense heat nearly scorches the pizza giving it that signature leopard-spotting which makes Neopolitans so recognizable. It also imparts a fantastic smokey flavor that no other pizza style possesses.

Potato pizza with crema, potatoes, sausage, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.
Potato pizza with crema, potatoes, sausage, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.

Here’s the deal: I’ve tried pizza in Boston, New York, Rome, and the motherland of modern pizza herself, Naples. Volturno pizza is right up there at the top with the best of the best. The dough was phenomenal. Soft, slightly charred, a delicate chew, and great flavor–I almost fell off my bar stool and I was rather sober.

The toppings (sausage, potatoes, onions, mozzarella) were all homemade and fresh, but frankly, you could put a homeless guy’s sock on that pizza and I’d still gladly eat it. It was that good.

I thought world class American-made pizza was only available in places like Brooklyn or the North End. Now, you can get legitimate pizza in Worcester that can impress the pickiest of big city pizza snobs around the globe.

Pasta Carbonara: bucatini pasta, guanciale (fancy bacon), onions, soft-boiled egg, and grana padano cheese.
Pasta Carbonara: bucatini pasta, guanciale (fancy bacon), onions, soft-boiled egg, and grana padano cheese.

To round things off, and because I want to be super fat, I had to get some homemade pasta. The carbonara with homemade bucatini, fried guanciale (a fancy type of bacon), onions, and a gooey soft-boiled egg topped with a mound of salty grana padano cheese was excellent. A very clean, simple, modern spin on a classic.

Volturno has something special going on. Passion and quality like this don’t come along often anymore, especially in a place like Worcester that sometimes feels forgotten. We’re incredibly lucky to have this gorgeous spot in our front yard. I look forward to coming back and trying all of their pizzas.

Get Mugged: Gourmet Coffee in the Ghetto

A single luxury high-rise stands alone in Worcester, Massachusetts stretching twenty four stories into the sky. You can see it from I-290, the highway running through the middle of the city. It’s one of the definitive buildings in Worcester’s modest skyline: The Skymark Tower. I saw floor plans and video tours of the interior when I was apartment hunting last year–it looks really nice. When President Obama was here last week, he stood just blocks away from it. And I’m sure he could see it from Air Force One as he took off from Worcester Airport.

Don’t be fooled. Directly across the street from the tower’s entrance, a homeless guy is pissing himself and blacking out in front of a liquor store in the warm afternoon sun. Further up the block, a shirtless guy is yelling at himself and massaging his own belly fat like a couch pillow, while a crackhead wearing a suspiciously unseasonable winter coat passes by on a girl’s bicycle.

Welcome to my hometown.

Ironically (and perhaps symbolically for locals), the tower marks the entrance to the self-proclaimed ghetto of Worcester–the southern neighborhoods of Main Street affectionately known as Main South.

This is where dreams go to score dope. Visitors rarely venture into this part of town (shockingly, you don’t see many Yelp reviews in these parts) and self-preserving locals know what streets to avoid. Most of the city’s drugs mingle here. Shootings and stabbings are common. Worcester Police recently installed a gunshot detection system that targets several problem areas in the city, including Main South and Grafton Hill (a rising star on the high-crime watch list).

The city’s movers and shakers have tried to gentrify parts of Main South for a long time, focusing their efforts primarily on the area surrounding the iconic Hanover Theatre. Buying up devalued property, raising rent, and pushing poorer residents to the outskirts of the city and surrounding suburbs–Gentrification 101. The tower is one of the most identifiable symbols of “revitalization” in the city.

Results have been moderate and progress has been slow. Main South is still home to low-level street gangs, prostitution rings, and plenty of drugs, but it also has some awesome ethnic food (naturally), highly-ranked Clark University, and…

Acoustic Java

Empty tables at Acoustic Java on Main Street, Worcester, MA.
You’ll forget all about getting robbed at gunpoint and remember the emergency $20 you crammed in your ass (gotta have street smarts). The coffee is that good.

An oasis. Not the shitty British band. This place is a true oasis from the drug-infested shooting gallery that surrounds it. Ok, that’s overly dramatic. This isn’t Compton. But, Main South is definitely a desert wasteland especially if you grew up around here. Thankfully, Acoustic Java on 932 Main Street is a magical pool of glorious life-nectar (and you don’t even have to leave the heavily-patrolled main artery).

It’s a welcomed respite from the grimy streets. The green storefront blends into the row of adjoining shops but there is a dark sign above one of the doorways. Find it and get inside quick.

Have a seat and enjoy a book with your coffee and snack. The troubles outside will seem like a distant memory.
Have a seat and enjoy a book with your coffee. The rough streets outside will seem like a distant memory.

Stocked bookshelves, loaded dessert cases, gourmet coffee & tea, a clean lunch menu, and a really warm atmosphere–all the makings of a great little coffee shop. The smell of coffee beans will smack you in the face as you walk in. Hard. Beans from all over the world. Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Colombia, Costa Rica, and more. I asked for two pounds of Ethiopian and Sumatran. It sounded like a drug deal and I cackled to Laura in the store. I am 28 years old. Why do you ask?

Coffee, tea, sandwiches, snacks... Are we still in Main South?
Coffee, tea, bistro-style sandwiches, pastries… Are we still in Main South?

I’m hittin’ that Ethiopian shit right now, man. Strong stuff.

This should be the future for small businesses in America. The new generation of business owners are not afraid to take chances in developing neighborhoods with lower rents; neighborhoods previously thought to be fruitless and too dangerous. They rely on good relationships with locals to remain relatively unscathed (aside from recent surges in graffiti & tagging) and quality products & services to succeed.

Or maybe they don’t have a choice?

Credit is hard to come by and most cities have made it clear that “presentable” areas of town are reserved for established business owners and national chains. The cool kids table.

Instead of peppering the edges of the ghetto with parking garages and loft apartments, the city needs to attract more small business owners by offering financial incentives and increasing police reinforcement. Get people to spend money in our city again and feel safe about doing it. Let’s keep things funky and grimy without the threat of getting stabbed.

We don’t need to cover our tattoos with cheap suits from Macy’s to pretend we fit in. Rough edges are more interesting.

Paul Revere Ate Here

 

World Famous Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End
An accordionist serenades customers waiting in line at the world famous Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End.

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.

"The Original Italian Caffe in the North End of Boston" -- T-Shirt from Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street
“The Original Italian Caffe in the North End of Boston” — shirt from Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street

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.

Remnants of a cafe latte and a sfogliatella at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street in Boston.
Remnants of a cafe latte and a sfogliatella at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street in Boston.

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.