Hold the Cannoli: Looking Beyond the North End's Main Attractions
Elisha Siegel finds bits of old school Boston on the corners of the North End.
I usually avoid the North End. It might make me a coastal elitist, but I never go there without an out of towner in tow. I think of the neighborhood as just another stop along the Freedom Trail - a tourist trap populated by map toting travelers, bloating restaurant wait lists and cannoli lines. So now that it’s time to research this piece, I’m not really sure what to look for. I don’t have much of a plan except to avoid Hanover Street’s urban theme park vibe and walk the neighborhood until I find something with a more grounded aesthetic. Thankfully, the North End’s pretty small and I don’t have to walk far.
I begin at Anthony’s Cafe, with its almost view of the Boston Harbor. Located on the corner of Fleet and Commercial Street, it’s a small room, packed tightly with tables and decorated with Boston sports photos. I’ve missed the lunch rush so it’s got that 'calm after the storm' energy. A couple construction workers take a breather at one of the bigger tables while business people come and go with subs to eat at their desks. I order from the tall counter. It’s well into the afternoon but this is my first meal of the day so I go for a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a bagel ($5.25).
Nothing beats a perfectly toasted bagel and salty bacon with a cup of hot coffee. As I enjoy my food I am drawn into the conversation of an Anthony's regular. One of the construction workers chats with the woman at the counter. They talk youth basketball and their daughter’s respective coaches, (one’s a pushover, the other’s a screamer) and hash out the best way to ask your wife to please wash the windows (there isn’t one). It’s fun to experience this sense of community that feels unique to Boston.
There aren’t enough late-night diners in Boston but if you’re an early bird the North End sports plenty of breakfast/lunch spots to satisfy that diner itch and since I’m making a rare daylight appearance, I decide to double up. I walk a couple blocks Northwest to the corner of Sheafe and Salem to another cozy corner restaurant called Theo’s Cozy Corner Restaurant. The Brazilian owned diner serves the usual diner fare along with Italian and Brazilian specialties. I’m still feeling an early afternoon breakfast buzz, and I’ve given up dieting for Lent, so I opt for a stack of blueberry pancakes ($9.25). They come out, stacked three high, light and spongy. The perfect consistency to enable my syrup habit.
I’m happy the coffee here is a little weak because I'm distracted by some serious people watching and I'm on my third cup before I know it. There’s a table of regulars who haven’t been in for a while. They ask the waitress about an employee. She says he's on vacation but I think she means he's been fired. There’s a business lunch in the corner, a couple sharing mussels at the counter and an old-timer who’s just here for coffee all while a steady stream of blue and white collar workers grab food to go. I overhear a conversation about Boston property values, “Everybody’s gone crazy.”
I leave Theo’s fully carbo-loaded and entertain the idea of a third diner but I can’t make room for the threepeat so I decide instead to pop into a classic North End establishment, Bova’s Bakery on the corner of Salem and Prince. Another cramped space that you wouldn’t want any other way. There are display cases on either side of me. To the left are the meats and cheeses, tortes, tarts, baked goods and that awesome rectangular “bakery” pizza. To the right are fresh baked breads and all manner of Italian cookies. There are chocolate chip cookies bigger than my head and brownies that might satisfy even my sweet tooth. But I am in the North End and haven’t eaten anything remotely Italian so I opt instead for a golden arancini the size of a baseball. The counterwoman kindly warms up the rice ball stuffed with spinach and cheese ($5), packing it up with a ramekin of red sauce. She puts everything in a white paper bag which I take out to the Greenway and eat in 28 degree weather – because Boston.
I have to admit, I’m pleased and genuinely surprised by my visit. I’d written off the North End for so long because I hate fighting for sidewalk space with distracted walkers and waiting on lines for anything. But what I found was that if you walk just a block or two away from the hubbub of the main drag there are refreshing outposts of the genuine occupying prime corner real estate. Pockets of old school Boston where the service is familiar and people enjoy the camaraderie as much as their meals.
Bova’s Bakery - 134 Salem Street, Boston, 617.523.5601, bovasbakeryboston.com
Anthony’s Cafe on the Waterfront - 252 Commercials St., Boston, 617.742.2987
Theo’s Cozy Corner Restaurant - 162 Salem St., Boston, 617.241.0202