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YUM! An Italian Food Market Tour of Boston’s North End

Delicious Italian pastries beckon you in Boston's North End.

Delicious Italian pastries lure you in Boston’s North End.

I expected luscious Italian food in my mouth during the Boston North End Italian market tour I just returned from, but I didn’t realize I would also learn shocking facts about my own kitchen and city.

Don't gobble up the screen.

Don’t gobble up the screen.

Our tour group of a dozen folks from around the country assembled at 10am just past the Haymarket T station. Before us opened the (hungry) mouth of the North End: Boston’s “Little Italy,” a famed commercial neighborhood that has been continuously inhabited since 1630.

My Baby-to-Be and I LOVED the food samples! Here, a fig.

My Baby-to-Be and I LOVED the food samples on the tour. Here, a fresh fig.

After we all introduced ourselves, our guide gave us a brief historical overview of the North End. Here was the first shocker: the North End used to have a huge Jewish population, and “Salem Street” was once called “Shalom Street!” For a Jewish gal like me, this was an exciting new fact about my home city.

Which Italian sweets are your favorite?

Which Italian sweets are your favorite?

Our tour’s first culinary stop was an Italian bakery, but NOT the famous one (which I shall keep nameless, as I’ve never liked it much) that all the tourists flock to on Hanover Street. Rather, the small gem we toured, “Maria’s,” is low-key, authentic, and scrumptious. Plus it has a fluffy cat.

Our guide gave the background as a fluffy cat (Italian?) looked on.

Our guide gave some pastry background as a poofy cat (Italian?) looked on.

To our ecstasy, after talking through the different types of Italian pastries in the shop, our guide (a former chef!) pulled out a platter with bite-sized samples. Given that I have the pregnancy symptom of being madly hungry all the time, I embraced these nuggets with gusto.

These flaky pastries were unbelievably good.

These flaky pastries were unbelievably good.

Our tour waved to the bakery and moseyed down the European-style streets to our next destination…

Boston's North End has some charming streets.

Boston’s North End has some charming streets.

A pasta shop! We all squeezed into the cozy space at DePasquale’s and I giggled, taking photos of the tentacles you see below. Little did I know, my culinary world was about to be rocked.

Next we moved to an Italian pasta store with plenty of interesting products on its shelves...

We stuffed into an Italian pasta store with some interesting products on its shelves…

You see, it was at this spot that our guide began to educate us about olive oil and balsamic vinegar. As the flavorful yellow oil slipped onto my tongue from the tasting spoon, the guide revealed that much of the “olive oil” in today’s supermarkets is fake, being mixed with safflower and other lies. Further, since olive oil only lasts a year or so, most of us have been using rancid oil. Nooo!

Real balsamic vinegar and my Baby Bump!

Real balsamic vinegar hovering over my baby bump belly.

Then came an education on balsamic vinegar. In fact, true balsamic vinegar is pure and expensive, but much of what we clamor to buy in our American stores is actually a mess of mediocre vinegar, sugar, and food coloring! And I thought I was so cool with my low-budget balsamic drizzles…

My friend Angel enjoying a balsamic vinegar tasting!

My friend Angel enjoying an authentic balsamic vinegar tasting.

In a tragic twist for those of us incubating a mini-human in our abdomens, our guide then passed out prosciutto slices on fresh bread. This was sad because preggo ladies are advised not to eat cold cuts, as we are at greater listeria risk. I glared in jealous rage at my friend Angel the whole time he enjoyed his snack.

Prosciutto tasting with fresh Italian bread. Yum!

Prosciutto tasting with fresh Italian bread. Yum!

Next up was Polcari’s: a charming old-world coffee, spice, and random food store that’s been operating since 1932. Feast your eyes on this rainbow of goods! I’m reminded of the colors of the Glass Museum in the Finger Lakes, NY!

What a store!

What a store.

In Polcari’s, we were aghast to learn that what we call “cinnamon” is actually a cheaper spice called “cassia.” We got to smell and feel real cinnamon versus cassia, and my culinary world was rocked again.

Then, our guide revealed that what is marketed as “Nutella” in America is in fact quite different from the healthier (!) version sold in Europe, having over three times the sugar, along with trans-fats and inferior ingredients. Argh. The delusions that have been swirling in my kitchen!

Such a variety of delicious treats.

Beautiful treats to gaze at as our culinary minds were rocked.

Our tour’s penultimate stop was Alba Produce: a wee, unmarked produce market at which we were presented with a glorious plate of figs, fennel, and cabbage. Crunch! I’ve never thought much about fennel, but you may now count me as a… fan-(nel).

Figs, cabbage, and fresh fennel. Crunch!

Figs, cabbage, and fresh fennel. Chomp!

I put lots of figs in my mouth and was happy. Outside on the narrow street, we laughed about how the movie “The Town” (one of a recent barrage of Boston gang movies) features a car chase in the North End. It’s hard to drive 2 miles an hour on those tiny streets, let alone race through in pursuit!

Chomping the samples.

Chomping the samples.

Through all of this, I kept thinking of the time I’ve spent in Italy itself. In my experience, the stereotype of Italy having incredible food is very, very true, so our Boston North End tour’s emphasis on finding the most authentically Italian markets and eateries was much appreciated.

Mmm... Can't you just smell the produce?

Mmm… Can’t you just smell the produce?

Our three-hour tour was drawing to a close, with one final stop. Monica’s Mercato called to us…

The North End is the closest you'll come to Italy in Boston.

The North End is the closest you’ll come to Italy in Boston.

Plump homemade ravioli winked out from the display case. Our guide explained that many “Heat and Eat” markets have sprung up in the North End for those who live there and have no time or inclination to cook. Those lucky North End residents!

Homemade pasta and all the glories that go on the side.

Homemade pasta and all the glories that go with it.

Thus concluded our yummy North End food market tour. Angel and I headed home satiated from the snacks and dizzy from the surprises we’d learned. Thanks, Boston Food Tours, for a wonderful tour!

We were guests of Zerve Tours, but all olive oil shocks, tentacle photos, and fig chomping are my own.

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