If you ever, on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, find yourself in the Italian enclave known as Boston’s North End, don’t bother with a map, guidebook, or other source of guidance. Boston’s North End is such that anywhere you wander, you will find delightful surprises, and any restaurant you enter will serve you the meal of your life.
I’m convinced you can’t make a bad choice if you head toward the North End on a Friday afternoon with “food and drink” held gently at the back of your mind. First, you’ll aimlessly wander streets filled with history, personality, and charm. You’ll probably walk down Hanover Street, and you’ll probably remark about the Christmas-like tinsel decorations spanning narrow side streets: remnants from the last (or preparations for the next) Catholic saint’s day festival. You might climb up Copp’s Hill to overlook the harbor, and you might stop by the burying ground to pay your respects to the Reverend Mathers or to leave a coin atop patriot Robert Newman’s grave. However long and in whichever direction you walk, the distant landmarks of Zakim Bridge and the Custom House tower will be visible over one or the other shoulder. You can’t get lost in Boston’s North End, so let your feet take you where they will.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, your thoughts will turn toward dinner, and you might briefly worry about finding a “good” place to eat. In a word, don’t. There are no “bad” places to eat in the North End, so let your choice be governed by whim and fancy. Does this place look alluring with its family-sized tables, or does that place look romantic with its tables for two? Do you prefer to compare menus, which in most places are prominently posted outside? Or are you adventurous, entering an establishment that doesn’t have a menu, just a chalkboard description of whatever someone’s Italian mama happens to be cooking today?
If you enjoy your food al fresco, you might choose one of several restaurants with open front windows, and if there are only two of you, your waiter might sit you right up front, where one of you can watch passersby in the street while the other watches the cooks in the kitchen. Either way, you’ve chosen well: in the North End, it’s impossible to choose poorly. Your handsome Italian waiter will present you with menus, but you won’t really need those, for this dark-eyed god of appetite will then regale you with velvet-voiced descriptions of tonight’s specials: cocktails you never dreamed possible, antipasto and pasta you couldn’t have hoped for, and entrees whose preparation, it seems, has been painstaking days in the making.
At first, all you’ll choose is whatever elaborately described cocktail your velvet-voiced waiter says he prefers…then under its powerful spell, you’ll pay heed to his other recommendations. At first blush, you’ll hesitate to order the three full courses of a traditional Italian meal: considering the sequence of antipasto, pasta, and entree, you wonder how stuffed and uncomfortable you’ll be by meal’s end. Immediately cast these thoughts from your mind. Your dark-eyed waiter makes his living from food–being Italian, he lives for food. He will not misguide you, so heed him. The three full courses of a traditional Italian meal are intended to be eaten slowly, with ample time for conversation; those entrees that have been painstaking days in the making will be savored over a glass of wine (chosen, of course, by your god of a waiter) only when the time is right, after other gustatory delights have been leisurely enjoyed in full.
When, at last, you’ve proclaimed “just right” over your vanished meal, the check will arrive…and you should refuse to bat a single eyelash. Now is not the time to think of budgets and economic downturns: this is the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, and for the cost of a subway ride and exquisite meal, you’ve traveled to Italy, been loved by a dark-eyed god, and slowly savored the flavors of heaven itself. What you have experienced is priceless, so calculate a generous tip, split the total, and offer silent thanks that in these days of budgets and economic downturns, both you and your friend are employed and deserving of occasional luxuries. Why should romantic restaurants filled with tables for two be reserved for first dates and anniversaries only? First dates are fleeting, and friendship is forever: budget accordingly.
After dinner, you and your friend will resume your rambling, stopping at any of a number of Italian bakeries where you will enjoy a scoop of gelato while buying cannoli for loved ones at home. There are no bad bakeries in Boston’s North End, so both your gelato and cannoli will be superb: the best you’ve ever had. The magic of the North End, especially on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, is that you can’t possibly find bad food anywhere. Any restaurant you enter will be the best, regardless of its name. “Best” is the only way they serve food and drink in Italy and all those enclaves inspired by her.
The first of today’s photos comes from last Friday night; the rest come from Saint Anthony’s Feast in 2007, which I’ve previously blogged. There is a reason why Catholic saint’s day celebrations are called “feasts”: despite everything you think you know about dour-faced ascetics and fasting pilgrims, Italian celebrations both spiritual and secular are always about the food.