A bellissima day in the neighborhood

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At a time when people bemoan the loss of American neighborhoods, Boston's North End stands out like a meatball on top of a mountain of pasta. It's not the Leave-it-to-Beaver suburb one might dream of, but rather a city neighborhood famous for its lively street life, safety, friendliness, and Italian flavor.

Just watch Michele Topor, guide of her North End Market Tour for 12 years, as she leads a group through the neighborhood where she's lived for three decades. She waves, blows kisses, and exchanges pleasantries with shopkeepers, chefs, and passersby. "We have the most wonderful characters here," she says, smiling as she hustles down the sidewalk in her low-heeled black shoes. "When I'm in a hurry, I have to take the back streets to avoid talking with people."

Shopping is a daily event for Italians, and the North End is no exception, Ms. Topor tells us.

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"People prefer to buy what they need on the day they need it," she explains. "They don't stock up weekly at the supermarket like Americans." Another difference is that Italians shop not only to buy but to socialize. "They need to find out who has the new baby or the new car," she explains affectionately.

Italians are known for conviviality as much as for their food. Ms. Topor cannot talk about one without the other, and yet food is the focus of her three-hour tour.

Topor is a trained chef, having learned from some of the culinary world's best teachers - Madeline Kamman, Marcella Hazan, and Giuliano Bugiali. She insists on quality, and says she wakes up each day excited to shop for and cook with fresh produce as well as the cheeses, meats, fresh fish, and packaged goods imported from Tuscany, Parma, or Sicily, all of which she buys down the street.

Formerly a nurse, Topor, who is of Polish descent, settled in the North End because she had "wanted to move to Europe but couldn't." In addition to weekly tours of the North End, she also leads food lovers throughout Tuscany and Sicily and teaches cooking classes.

Topor sets the tone for her tour with a brief history. Boston's North End, she tells us, is not only America's oldest Italian neighborhood, but it is also the source of more Italian food products than any town in the country. Not even New York or San Francisco has an Italian section that so closely resembles the old country.

But it wasn't always this way, she explains. Puritans settled in this neighborhood in 1630. Many years later, Irish immigrants moved in, then Russian and Polish Jews, Portuguese and Spanish fishermen, and finally the Italians. By 1910, Italians had almost completely taken over the North End. Prosciutto or Parmigiano Reggiano couldn't be found on any restaurant menu then. Meals were made with what was least expensive - vegetables, grains, beans, pasta, polenta, rice; discards from local fishermen such as calamari and monkfish; or rejects from the neighborhood butcher.

Italian-American food dominated here until about 10 years ago when North End restaurants experienced a "renaissance" and became more authentic. Gone from the menu of many of the North End's 100 eating places are such Americanized dishes as chicken or veal parmesan, heavily tomato-sauced pasta dishes, and excessively sweet desserts.

"Each one of Italy's 20 regions has its own distinctive cuisine, depending on who invaded that land over the centuries," Topor explains.

Our first stop is Maria's Pastry Shop, a small, unpretentious store where Maria, her sister Enza, and her curly-haired daughter emerge from the kitchen with wide smiles and trays of treats. "I only eat marzipan at Maria's," Topor tells us as Maria and family beam behind the counter. "Look at these works of art!"

Then Topor unveils a row of cookies covered in plastic to display several varieties - from ladyfingers to chocolate and almond "logs," and macaroons made with egg pasta instead of coconut. "We call these pasa tempo," she says, "as in something to help you pass the time."

A large sign behind the counter reads "fresh-filled cannoli," which Topor says is the "only way" to buy this popular Italian dessert. "If you order cannoli, and they don't fill it with ricotta while you wait, forget it," she says.

Throughout her tour, Topor shares tips like this, and each time pens start scribbling. Well worth its $35 cost, Topor's tour is more valuable than many cooking classes. It is part tour, part history lesson, part food tasting, and also a fascinating glimpse into how one person can turn a passion into a job she truly loves.

At Dairy Fresh Candies, where bags of sweets, nuts, and dried fruit are piled high on both sides of the aisle, Topor's tips start to fly: "Soak these chestnuts overnight and use them in desserts. Always toast pine nuts before using them. To preserve pesto, put oil on top."

She then leads us to the shelves of olive oil and launches into a lesson about this popular product made from "Italy's most complex food."

"Extra-virgin olive oil is always first-pressed and cold-pressed," she begins. "If the olive is picked green, the oil will have a bitter flavor. If picked black, it will be buttery. Unfiltered olive oil has the pulp of the olive in it. It lasts on the shelf for one year, whereas filtered will last two years. Always keep your olive oil away from heat, air, and sunlight. Best place is in the cupboard. Or cover the bottle with foil."

As we head out the door, passing large, irregularly cut blocks of dark, milk, and white chocolate, Topor instructs: "Forget the Tollhouse bits, get an ice pick, and bake with this instead!"

Once outside, we scurry down the narrow sidewalk before ducking into the fish store. We ooh and ahh at the glistening mussels, look curiously at the lobsters and crabs that share the same tank, jot down Topor's comment that "tiger shrimp are heavily cultivated and have no flavor," and then continue on our way.

Polcari's Coffee turns out to be so much more than its name suggests. More than 100 dried herbs and spices are sold at this 68-year-old, family-run shop, and we can practically smell every one of them wafting from burlap sacks on the wood floor.

Other highlights of Topor's tour include Boschetto's Bakery, where bread bakers work all night to produce 500 loaves of Tuscan bread in a 120-year-old brick oven; Alba Produce, a tiny shop with no prices and no sign that is much loved by locals; and Salumeria Italian, which Topor calls "the best Italian grocery store in the US." There, owner Gaetano Martignetti readies plates of imported prosciutto de Parma for us to sample.

At the tour's end, our group disperses, but some of us can't leave just yet. Restaurants are just opening their doors, and we linger to smell the garlic and peruse their menus. Heading into rush-hour traffic, we dream of Tuscany and Sicily. For now, though, we're simply eager to cook with just-purchased Tuscan olive oil, fresh pappardelle pasta, and deep purple eggplant. And to finish off the meal, a fresh-filled cannoli will do just fine.

For more information about the North End Market Tour, visit Michele Topor's Web site at www.cucinare.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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