Hanover Street – the heart of Boston’s Little Italy.

Some of the many original Italian ports of origin.

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston’s Italian neighborhood is called the North End. It has a strong Italian flair and numerous Italian restaurants. The North End is also Boston’s oldest neighborhood and it still possesses an old-world charm kept alive by its mostly Italian-American population. Since the completion of the Big Dig and the demolition of the old elevated Southeast Expressway, the neighborhood has found itself re-connected to the rest of the city. There is arguably no more vibrant area of Boston on a summer evening when the narrow city streets come alive with a blend of culture and cuisine.

The North End, often called Boston’s “Little Italy,” is a one-square-mile waterfront community, bordered by Commercial and Causeway Streets and Atlantic Avenue, located within walking distance of Boston’s financial district and Government Center. A highly desirable residential area for professionals who work nearby, the neighborhood also is a major attraction for tourists and Bostonians alike, who come seeking the best in Italian cuisine and to enjoy the decidedly Italian feel of the region. Hanover and Salem Streets, the two main streets of this bustling historic neighborhood, are lined with restaurants, cafes and shops, selling a variety of delectable edible goods. A trip to Boston would not be complete without including a meal at one of North End’s over one hundred fine Italian restaurants.

The many immigrants who originally settled in these neighborhoods, with their distinctive dialects, their history and their traditions of the regions in Italy from which they came, were carefully preserved and are celebrated during the summer months in the North End even today. Italian-Americans still comprise more than 41% of the resident population. It is one of the most vibrant and thriving neighborhoods of its kind. Old customs and traditions die hard (if ever at all). For despite the fact that 50 individual religious societies once existed in the North End and only 12 remain today, these societies with their religious feasts and processions remain an integral part of North End neighborhood life and culture, drawing large summertime crowds. Saint Anthony’s Feast is celebrated each year in the North End of Boston on the weekend of the last Sunday of August. Begun by Italian immigrants from Montefalcione, Italy, in 1919, it has become the largest Italian religious festival in New England. Italian foods, religious services, parades, festivities, games, live music and entertainment highlight this feast on the elaborately decorated Endicott and Thatcher streets in the heart of Boston’s historic North End. 

Tourism provides an economic boost to the area. However, many neighborhood grocery stores, fruit vendors, butcher shops, bakeries, shoe stores, clothiers and cobblers have simply disappeared to be replaced by restaurants. With a population barely one-quarter of its 44,000 peak in 1930, fewer services are required to sustain the community. Ten of its 12 schools have been subdivided and converted to condominium apartments. Church parishes have been auctioned off to the highest bidder. Times have changed in Boston’s North End.

From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, the majority from 1900 to 1914. Once in America, the immigrants faced great challenges. Often with no knowledge of the English language and with little education, many of the immigrants were compelled to accept the poorest paying and most undesirable jobs. Many sought housing in the older sections of the large northeastern cities in which they settled, which became known as “Little Italys”, often in overcrowded substandard tenements.

The destinations of many of the Italian immigrants were not only the large cities of the East Coast, but also more remote regions of the country, such as Florida and California. They were drawn there by opportunities in agriculture, mining, railroad construction and lumbering. Many of the immigrants had contracted to work in these areas of the country as a condition for payment of their passage. Many of the Italian laborers, who went to these areas, were later joined by wives and children, which resulted in the establishment of permanent Italian American settlements in diverse parts of the country.

The Old North End

The first Italians arrived in the North End of Boston in the 1860’s, forced by unbearable conditions in Italy to leave their native land. Their numbers grew in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Although many of the first Italian immigrants worked as vendors of fruits and vegetables, they later found work in commercial fishing, in shipping, in construction, and as shopkeepers. They sought help from family members and acquaintances from the same regions of Italy who had already established themselves in the area. Over time, this resulted in enclaves of residents living together on streets segregated by a region of Italy – Sicily, Milan, Naples, and Genoa – from which they had come; preserving its language and customs as well. Over the next decades, the Italian population of the North End increased and other immigrant groups moved elsewhere. By 1900, Italians had firmly established themselves in the North End and by 1930 the North End was almost one hundred percent Italian.

The North End had also changed in a number of other significant ways. Protestant churches were acquired by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston – reflecting the ascendancy of Irish Catholicism throughout the neighborhood. The Seamen’s Bethel Church became the Sacred Heart Church in 1871. The Bulfinch-designed New North Congregational Society became St. Stephen’s Church. In 1873 St. Leonard’s Church was founded at the corner of Hanover and Prince Streets, becoming the first Italian church in New England and the second oldest in America.

In 1920, the North End had 28 Italian physicians, six Italian dentists, eight Italian owned funeral homes and, on every main street, four or five barber shops . Most North End businesses were of the “Ma and Pa” variety – small grocery stores, butcher shops, bakeries, dressmakers, cobblers and shoe stores.

There were two notable exceptions to the “Ma and Pa” businesses:

Luigi Pastene came to Boston from Italy in 1848 and began selling produce from a pushcart. By the 1870’s, he was joined by his son, Pietro, in establishing Pastene as a company specializing in selling groceries and imported Italian products. By 1901, Pastene expanded its operations to facilities along Fulton Street in the heart of the North End. Today, the Pastene Corporation is a major national brand with distribution and packing facilities established in New York, Montreal, New Haven and Havana, as well as in Italy in Naples and Imperia.

Three Sicilian friends- LaMarca, Seminara and Cantella – started a small macaroni and spaghetti manufacturing business in 1912. They became so successful that within five years, they moved their Prince Pasta Company to 207 Commercial Street. Then, in 1939 the three partners were joined by Giuseppe Pellegrino, another Sicilian immigrant with a talent for marketing. He created the famous slogan “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day”. Eventually the company was sold to Borden, Inc. in 1987.      

 


These two business success stories aside, most Italian North Enders found life hard, both economically and socially. Like the experience of the Boston Irish before them, Italian-Americans began to accrue political power after the close of WW II and in 1948 Foster Furcolo was elected the first Italian-American Congressman and eight years later he became the first Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts.

Fred Langone, whose grandfather had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1922, was elected in 1961 to the Boston City Council, a position he held for the next 22 years. Frank X. Belotti served as Lieutenant Governor from 1963 to 1965 and John Volpe was elected the second Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts in 1960.

 

Ravioli

Little cases of dough containing a savory filling — this is the definition given by Webster’s Dictionary. But Marguerite Dimino defines ravioli as “the one Italian food that everyone loves.” The following is a step-by-step recipe for, as many have called it, “the best ravioli in Boston’s North End.” It would seem unlikely that from the number of good cooks in the North End, one could emerge with a singular reputation as perhaps “the best.” But Marguerite DiMino, a vivacious mother of four grown children, has done just that.

Her ravioli is a culinary celebrity in Boston. She has prepared her ravioli for a television audience, as demonstration for an ethnic week at the Museum of Science and during an Italian festival at a leading department store. When the Consulate-General of Israel was served a North End specialty during Jerusalem month, it was Marguerite’s ravioli.

A Boston newspaper featured Marguerite’s ravioli and included her recipe in the article. Soon she was inundated with calls and letters from people homesick for “a ravioli like their grandmother’s.” She went on to write one of the most well known cookbooks from the region, The North End Italian Cookbook by Marguerite DiMino Buonopane. Here is her recipe:

Dough:

  • 2½ pounds (about 10 cups) unbleached, unsifted flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 medium eggs
  • Boiling water as needed

 Directions:

Make a well in the flour on a pastry board. Add salt. Partially beat eggs before adding to flour. Add eggs gradually, mix with fingers until dough resembles the texture of cornmeal. Sprinkle on the boiling water starting with only 1/4 cup, and work it into dough. Add more boiling water, as needed, until dough is smooth and pliable, but not too soft. Knead dough for about five minutes. Pat with some water, cover, and let sit for about half an hour. Prepare filling and meat sauce while waiting for the dough. 

Filling:

  • 2 pounds ricotta cheese
  • 5 medium eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Dash of pepper
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 1 small clove garlic, pressed
  • 8 finely chopped parsley sprigs

Blend all ingredients together.

Meat Sauce:

  • Oil
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • Dash: sweet basil, red pepper flakes, oregano, and bay leaf
  • (Remove bay leaf before serving)
  • 1/2 pound lean ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground pork (beef may be substituted)
  • 1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
  • 1 can (1 Ib. 12 oz.) Italian peeled tomatoes
  • 1 can water (using tomato can)

Directions:

Put enough oil in a saucepan to coat the bottom. Saute garlic, onion, and seasonings over medium heat until onion is lightly golden. Add all the meat. Cook until slightly browned. Add the tomato paste and stir a few minutes. Add tomatoes and stir. Pour in water. Reduce heat and allow the sauce to simmer for up to one hour, stirring frequently.

To Assemble:

Divide dough into fourths and roll out only one-fourth at a time, keeping the rest covered. Roll dough as thin as possible. Place heaping teaspoons of filling 1½ inches from edge of dough. Continue to place filling in straight rows on the dough, being careful to leave 1½ inches between each spoonful. Fold over the edge of the dough to completely cover the first row of filling. With your fingers, gently press down on dough around the mounds of filling. Using a 2½-inch ravioli cutter, cut around the mounds. A pastry cutter or small glass may be used instead — but be sure to seal the edges with a fork. Continue in this manner until all the dough is used. (The dough that you don’t want to use may be frozen in a plastic bag and used at a later date to make more ravioli or even pasta. It may also be kept in the refrigerator up to 5 days.)

To Freeze:

This recipe may very well make much more than you will want to serve at one time. The ravioli can be frozen before it is cooked. Sprinkle flour or cornmeal on cookie sheets and place ravioli in a single layer on the sheets and freeze. This takes about 20 minutes. After the ravioli is frozen it may be placed in plastic bags. This way the pieces won’t stick to one another.

To Cook:

Bring 6 to 8 quarts of salted water to a boil. Gradually add the ravioli and cook until tender (15 to 20 minutes) . It is best not to overcrowd the pot, because you will need to continually press ravioli to bottom of pot so that they will cook evenly.

To Serve:

Carefully remove ravioli and let them drain well. Place them in a serving dish and cover with meat sauce and a layer of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Continue in this manner until you have used all the cooked ravioli. Serve with a tossed salad, garlic bread, and wine. Enjoy your meal and all the compliments you will receive!


The North End Italian Marinara Sauce

This recipe for Marinara Sauce is adapted from The North End Italian Cookbook by Marguerite DiMino Buonopane, one of the North End’s most celebrated cooks.

This sauce is perfect for adding sliced black olives, clams, mushrooms or crab. Use your imagination. This is a spicy sauce due to the red pepper flakes. Good over cooked thin spaghetti or linguini.

 I like to serve this sauce over Chicken Parmigiana.

Ingredients     

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried mint
  • 2- 26.4 ounces Pomi chopped tomatoes salt and pepper, plus
  • 1 pinch salt and pepper, more of the above seasonings
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Directions

In a large heavy skillet, on low heat, very slowly heat the olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, basil and mint.

Cook for 5 minutes or until garlic is light golden brown.

Raise the heat to medium high and carefully add the tomatoes.

Let the sauce come to a soft boil.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add a pinch more of red pepper, basil and mint.

Add the chopped parsley.

Let sauce simmer, uncovered for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.

Frankie’s Gravy and Meatballs

This recipe was one of four chosen from more than 1500 submissions to the Food Network’s Italian recipe contest. It earned Frankie Imbergamo an appearance on the “Emeril Live” TV show. Growing up on Hanover Street in Boston’s “Little Italy” where he attended both the Eliot and Michelangelo schools, Frankie still identifies closely with the neighborhood. It’s his point of reference. “It’s where it all began for me,” he says. “I have so many special memories of people – family and friends – and of times – both good and bad. A common thread, it seems, through all these memories has been love, comfort and a feeling of belonging – a feeling of home.”

Partly as a result of his newly-found mini-celebrity status, family members and friends urged Frankie to assemble some of his favorite home-style recipes into a cookbook. “Through the years, I’ve enjoyed creating my own meals, in my own style and always with the finest ingredients,” he explained.

So, with assistance from his wife, Maureen, the husband-and-wife team produced, The Good Life! Favorite Italian Recipes by Frank J. Imbergamo. The volume contains 40 recipes, including “Pork Chops with Vinegar Peppers and Potatoes,” “Haddock Pizzaiola” and “Baked Lobster Pie.” It also includes a useful reference list pairing recipes with suggested wines. Here is the recipe that won him first place.

Meatballs:

  • 2 lbs. ground beef
  • 4 eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups plain bread crumbs
  • 3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Gravy (sauce):

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste (Flotta or Pastene)
  • 1 (6 oz.) can water (use empty tomato paste can)
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley chopped
  • 2 (28 oz.) cans Pastene Kitchen Ready tomatoes
  • 3/4 can water (21 oz. use empty Kitchen Ready can)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 1 tsp. fresh parsley, chopped

Directions:

In a bowl, mix all ingredients for meatballs with hands for about 5 minutes, until well mixed. Form about 16 meatballs and place on a platter. In a frying pan add olive oil and, when hot, add meatballs and cook on medium heat until browned. Repeat until all meatballs are browned. Place meatballs on a new platter. Do not discard the oil.

Saute chopped onion and chopped garlic in the oil for approximately 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook on medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring all the while. Add can of water (tomato paste can) and cook and stir for 1 minute. Take off heat and set aside.

In an 8-quart pan, add tomatoes and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add 3/4 can of water (Kitchen Ready can), tomato paste mixture from fry pan and browned meatballs. Mix thoroughly, stirring carefully with wooden spoon as not to break meatballs. Add salt, ground pepper and parsley and cook on medium heat for 15 minutes, then cover and cook on low heat for 2-1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes to prevent sticking and burning on bottom of pan, until done.

Serve over al dente pasta and sprinkle with some grated Pecorino Romano cheese, along with crusty Italian bread and a good bottle of red wine.

 

Crespelle Al Forno

 Recipe from one of Boston’s North End restaurants, Tresca:

Crepe:

  • 2 egg yolks, 4 whole eggs
  • 6 oz. all purpose flour
  • 6 oz. water
  • 6 oz. milk
  • pinch of salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 bunch of chives

Directions:

Mix all ingredients, let sit 5 minutes. Mix again and strain. Heat a nonstick pan with oil over medium heat, add 1 oz. of mix turning pan to coat evenly. When sides pull away from the pan, flip over and cook 10 seconds. Remove to a plate.

Filling: Mushroom mix

  • 1 cup each of mixed mushrooms, shiitake, oyster and baby bellas, sliced
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1/4 cup marjoram, minced
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • 1 tablespoon truffle oil

Directions:

Saute mushrooms with shallots, add marjoram, salt and pepper. Reserve some mushrooms for garnish.

Pulse remaining mushrooms in food processor until coarsely chopped.

Mix ricotta with mushrooms and truffle oil, then chill.

Scoop mushroom mix into crepe and roll.

Heat skillet used to cook mushrooms with some olive oil. Brown crepes on both sides and place pan in a preheated moderate oven. Heat crepes until hot in the center. Serve with sauteed mushrooms and a drizzle with truffle oil.

Baked Cod with Lemon & Olive Oil

From the North End Fish Market

Two girls gone fishing !  According to Liz Ventura and Keri Cassidy: They traded successful careers in software and human resources for the opportunity to own their own business. “Why food? Because they love to eat. Why fish? Easy, there wasn’t a fish market in the north end at the time. In the small predominantly Italian neighborhood where food is taken very seriously it was the only missing piece. When they found out that the tiny produce store that they loved to frequent was closing, a light bulb went on, and the North End Fish Market was open for business a year later.”

4 Servings

Ingredients:

  • 4 cod fillets (6 ounces each)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 2 tablespoons chopped roasted red peppers
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil.

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Arrange the fillets in a 13 x 9 baking dish. Drizzle with the lemon juice and oil, and sprinkle with the garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper. Sprinkle with the paprika and lightly rub it in. Top with roasted red peppers. Bake until the flesh is completely opaque but still juicy, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with the pan juices spooned over the top. Garnish with basil.

Sfogliatella

Recipe courtesy John Picariello and Sara McGee, Modern Pastry Bakery

“The Modern Pastry Shop is an award winning, family owned Italian bakery that was created over 70 years ago, on Hanover Street in Boston’s North End. The world may have changed since the 1930’s, but their original recipes and time honored traditions for creating their confections have not. The recipes and the baking procedures are the same since their family brought them over from Italy, so many years ago.”

Recipe for Italian Custard Cream: http://www.academiabarilla.com/italian-recipes/how-to/confectioner-cream.aspx

Serves: 16 to 20 pieces

Ingredients

Dough:

  • 1 3/4 pounds bread flour
  • Vegetable oil

Filling:

  • 1 pound semolina flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon oil
  • 15 eggs
  • 1 1/4 pounds ricotta
  • 3/4 pound custard cream
  • 1/2 pound sugar

Directions

For the dough: Mix the bread flour and 1 cup water in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer with a hook attachment until firm. Take the dough out of the bowl, completely wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 1 hour.

Press the dough as thin as possible with a rolling pin. Apply oil to the surfaces and roll the dough into a salami-shaped roll about 3 inches thick. When done, wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator overnight.

For the filling: Put 4 cups water in a pot and bring to a boil. Add the semolina and mix until thoroughly firm and cooked. When the semolina is cool, put it in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer and add the cinnamon oil. Mix at speed 2 and add the eggs one at a time. Add the ricotta and custard cream and mix thoroughly. Add the sugar, little by little while mixing thoroughly. If mixture is still extremely firm, add a couple more eggs.

To assemble: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut the “salami roll” into 1/4-inch discs. Each disc should be smoothed out between your palms. Using an ice cream scoop, fill the middle of the disc with filling and fold over into the shape of a clam shell. Put on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and crispy, about 1 hour.

 

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