The North End (a.k.a. “Little Italy”) is tucked into a tiny peninsula in Boston’s inner harbor. It is one of the city’s better known neighborhoods and is popular with tourists who come to eat and visit points of historical interest on the self-guided Freedom Trail, but more about that later.
This neighborhod is charming unless you’re driving then it is a nightmare. The North End is comprised of a maze of narrow, meandering streets that are chock-full of Italian restaurants, bakeries and cafes. It also happens to be where my Italian-American grandmother grew up. Although I never lived here, I feel connected to this otherwise touristy part of town because of my family’s history.
No neighborhood has benefitted more from the Big Dig, which replaced Boston’s aging Central Artery, than the North End. The noisy and polluted elevated expressway that was erected in the 1950s cut off the North End. The Big Dig rectified that by building a 1.5 mile tunnel under downtown Boston, and converting the land into a wonderful new park that runs from Boston’s North Station to South Station. The massive green iron girders used to support the 40′ elevated expressway are now gone as are the shadows and gas fumes it cast. The Rose Kennedy Greenway (a.k.a. The Greenway) has reclaimed this space, giving the North End access to a beautiful new park, more open space and cleaner air. I remember the first time having a drink in the North End after the expressway came down. Looking out the window, I was stunned to see the Union Oyster House sign. I had no idea it was so close.
About The North End: The North End is one of the oldest parts of Boston with some buildings dating back to the 1600s. Today it is home to approximately 9,000 people. The neighborhood is only one third of a square mile and has some of the most maddening streets so park elsewhere and bicycle, walk or Uber here. The North End is a bit of a transportation center. It has Orange, Green and Blue Line MBTA stations, access to water taxis, and is adjacent to Boston’s North Station (a train station for the commuter rail serving communities north of Boston, Amtrak and Boston & Maine train lines) It is also near places of interest like The Boston Garden, The Boston Public Market, and Faneuil Hall & Quincy Market.
While the North End embraces its Italian heritage, it is no longer a refuge for Italian immigrants and their families. Italians stopped emigrating to Boston in large numbers decades ago, and the North End’s expensive rent pushed most Italian families out of the neighborhood years before that. It is now a rare thing to hear Italian spoken in the North End. However, that doesn’t prevent the North End from hosting huge feasts through much of the summer and being home to more Italian restaurants than any other part of the city. Tourists seem to eat it up (literally) so the neighborhood clings to its identity and the rest of Boston plays along.
What to do in the North End: There are really two things to do in the North End. The first is eat / drink. I would guess this neighborhood has more restaurant, cafes and bakeries per square block than anywhere else in the city. I’ll talk more about food later so that leaves the other thing to do in the North End; take in its history. This is one of the oldest parts of Boston, dating back to the 1600s. If you’re fascinated by Colonial America and the American Revolution, you’ll love it here.
Sites on the self-guided Freedom Trail include the Copps Hill Burrying Ground (built in 1659), Paul Revere House (built in 1680), Pierce-Hichborn House (built in 1711), and Old North Church (built in 1723). When I would bring friends here, I would often show places of interest that may lack the history of these other sites but are fun to visit, like the crazy All Saints Way on Battery Street and the Skinny House on Hull Street. Legend has it that this 6′ wide house was built in the 1870s out of spite. Sometimes I point out the Prince Building, which is now a luxury condominium building. About 100 years ago it was a thriving pasta company for Prince Spaghetti, which was founded by my great grandfather. As a child, my grandmother would run pasta up and down the stairs of the building.
If all that walking sounds exhausting, grab yourself an Italian pastry or gelato and sitdown on The Greenway or at the end of Long Wharf, and look out into the harbor to watch planes take off and land at Logan Airport.
Restaurants in North End: This neighborhood takes eating very seriously. If you like seafood, check out Neptune Oyster I realize you may be in an “Italian state of mind”, but trust me when I say it is worth the ridiculous wait and plan accordingly. It is consistently ranked the best seafood restaurant in Boston (and it deserves the distinction). Another place to stop by is Bricco Salumeria or two doors down I also like Monica’s Pasta Shop. While neither are restaurants, the former is an Italian grocer with excellent breads, cheeses, and meats and the latter has great grab-n-go options. You can make a picnic from their selections and sit outside by the water or on the Greenway. Just be sure to hide your bottle of wine in a backpack or bag! Everyone else is doing the same thing.
If you have pizza on the brain then you may want to stop by the North End’s best known pizzeria, Pizzeria Regina, which has been operating since the 1950s. My sister’s family recently stopped by Regina’s, Ernesto’s Pizza Shop and Ducali Pizzeria to see who made the best pizza. From what I understand everyone had a different favorite – the competition is pretty stiff so I’m not surprised there wasn’t a consensus. Should you come to Boston, I recommend you try a similar tasting to determine your favorite.
The list of restaurants in this neighborhood is too long for me to do them justice, but should you find yourself visiting Boston and in need of a recommendation, leave a comment, and I’ll share suggestions based on what you’re looking for (e.g., romantic setting, family friendly, fine dining, etc…).
I rarely order desserts, but this neighborhood has been responsible for my calorie consumption of sweets by the tens of thousands (if not more) over the years. In my late 20s and early 30s, I regularly visited Bova’s Bakery, becuase it is open 24-hours. After a night out drinking this place would call to me. I can’t tell you how many times I tipped my taxi driver with cash and a cannoli. If you like that Italian pastry, I recommend you read my 2014 blind tasting of cannolis, Mike’s Pastry vs. The Modern Pastry Shop.
If you happen to be new to Boston or planning a visit, feel free to reach out to me with any questions. If you are familiar with Boston’s North End, recommendations and comments are welcome.