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A bellissima day in the neighborhood

By Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2000

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.

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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.

"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!"