There's no doubt that each city across the world boasts unique food offerings. But if time is short and you don’t have opportunities for full immersion, taking the right food tour makes the difference between being a clueless tourist or gaining a full understanding of where to go and what to buy. Take Boston’s North End for instance…a casual stroll down the cobbled streets of America’s oldest Italian community reveals many tempting savories in late 19th century store windows. But only after taking Boston Food Tours run by Michele Topor do you really learn the distinction between longstanding neighborhood food shops and those that may be recent newcomers not necessarily maintaining the same Old World standards.
Each three hour Boston Food Tour walk is like gathering for a cooking class. Formerly a nurse and also trained chef, Michele has lived in the North End for 40 years. She primarily focuses on the gli ingredienti veraci (authentic ingredients) key to producing la bellissima cucina italiana (distinctive Italian cuisine) not only in the neighborhood but throughout Italy. Before even walking the streets, Michele gathers groups together for an overview of local immigrant history and a description of Italian regional food ways. Michele clarifies right away that there is no overarching “Italian” cuisine. Italy's 20 regions each have unique culinary traditions. Many Italians in the North End emigrated from Sicily and this reflects what type of market ingredients are readily available, like the sesame seeds baked into cookies were originally introduced during Middle East incursions long ago into Italy’s southern-most island.
Michele fully imparts her appreciation of the Mediterranean diet. Beans, olive oil, and plenty of seasonal produce are now of course highly sought after as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. But these foods were originally favored simply because they were cheap and readily available. It was only when newly minted Italian Americans began enjoying a higher standard of living that they began splurging more heavily on meats and cheese, ingredients we most commonly identify with the ubiquitous pizza and pasta of today. Which leads us to spaghetti and meatballs—they aren't eaten together. Italians traditionally eat a succession of small courses, primo, secondo, and contorno with salad at the end of the meal...that's right, the end....to promote digestion (digestion). And those rich sweet desserts like tiramisu? They are eaten in the afternoon allowing for digestion before a later dinner at 8 or 9 p.m.
Some other intriguing Italian foodie factoids I acquired during the tour:
Cannolis originated in Sicily
There's actually mozzarella made in certain regions from water buffalo milk
A by-product of cheese making, Ricotta (literally translated means re-cooked) reflects the fact that Italians waste nothing
Biscotti originated from spare living conditions...they can dry out & still be fine to eat.
Stemming from family recipes, authentic balsamic vinegar come from Modena and must be fermented for 12 years.
And probably the most joyous tidbit of them all...Prosciutto does not elevate cholesterol!
Remaining Photos Courtesy of iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Here are some shops we visited. They ship anywhere in the U.S. for those needing to pack light for back-at-home kitchen experiments you'll no doubt be plotting during the tour.
Maria's Pastry Shop - This pasticceria has no set recipes. Maria says it all depends on weather. Trays line the display cases with fresh baked daily biscotti, marzipan, pasticiotti, cannoli, and my favorite, Aragosta, a.k.a lobster tails (flaky pastry shell filled with vanilla mousse cream). Besides eating by the slice, her homemade pannetone makes great French toast!
Polcari's Coffee– This is the store to buy authentic Italian ingredients for your own kitchen. Join the cue of locals who stop in daily for a wide variety of bulk-dried beans and grains like wheat berries, corn meal for polenta, Arborio rice for risotto, and liquorice stalks that can be chewed as a healthy palate cleanser. Canisters behind the counter brim with Chamomile flowers for making your own tea and carob pods(seeds from these were once used as a measure of weight and are now prized for their high fiber). Michele showed us the visible difference between two types of cinnamon sticks — a thinner, hard cinnamon stick known as cassia which comes from China, Vietnam and Indonesia and the "true" form of cinnamon from Sri Lanka used in Italian recipes, which is thicker, more fragrant, and crumbles more easily.
De Pasquale's Homemade Pasta Shoppe - I walked away from this tiny but widely stocked shop with some wild boar sausage, artisan pastas, and my favorite, Castelvetrano olives. Other treats in their offerings include homemade fresh-filled ravioli and gnocchi; DOP San Marzano tomatoes, a must for homemade sauce; and cheeses like smoked scamorza & molierno with truffles.