About ten years ago this summer, L. and I went apartment hunting together. After seeing a lot of depressing places and a few that were marginally acceptable – and after at least one real estate agent told me it was impossible to get what we wanted and hung up on me – we finally hit upon the North End. We loved it instantly: the winding little streets and alleys, the history of the neighborhood, the close proximity to gelato at all times. Also, the real estate agent walking us to apartments said hello to people on the street and they actually seemed to know her and care enough to say hi back. And so, we ended up living for three years in a lovely though outdated 2 bedroom with a very sweet Sicilian landlady who lived on the second floor. She had some quirks, such as insisting on a lease that specified that large parties weren’t allowed and asking us to feel the stove when we moved in because she was proud of how clean it was. But the upside is that she always looked out for us, and when I graduated from grad school and had to start repaying my student loans, she actually lowered our rent by $100 a month to help out. I’ll always be grateful for that.
It’s only part of the reason I still have warm fuzzy feelings about the North End though. The others are listed below and are the things I’d recommend you check out if you ever have a chance to visit. You’ll notice a lot of the list is about food because, like the little old Italian grandmother I may someday be, I am duty-bound to tell you, “Mangia, mangia!” Seriously though, do it, or you’re missing out.
- For cannoli – and you must have cannoli! – skip all the places everyone talks about on Hanover Street and go straight to Maria’s. They only fill their crisp shells with the ricotta after you order, ensuring perfect freshness. Their cookies are also amazing, as is the marzipan, if you’re into doll-sized bits of almond paste shaped and colored like different fruits. (Me, I’m always disappointed that the strawberry doesn’t taste like a strawberry.)
- For a quick lunch or dinner, go to Dino’s on Salem Street and get either an enormous sandwich for a tiny price or an enormous helping of pasta for a slightly larger tiny price. Everything is yummy, and you may even get two meals for the price of one, unless you can consume much more in one sitting than I can.
- If you are the cigar bar type, there is one below ground level on Hanover called Stanza dei Sigari that’s got atmosphere to spare, perhaps because it used to be a speakeasy. Of course, I was pregnant last time I was there so I can’t speak personally to the quality of the cigars or liquor, but I can say that everyone I was with seemed to enjoy them a lot, and some of them are quite picky, especially about their scotch. Sidenote: This place has hookahs with “signature blends,” including one called Creamsicle. I’ll admit, I’m slightly put off by the idea of smoking something that tastes like a treat I enjoyed as a child. But is it so wrong it’s right? Anyone want to go with me and find out?
- Go find the Skinny House and be glad you can’t stretch out your arms and touch the opposite walls of your own house (you can’t, can you?). Yeah, it’s really that small. The lesson learned from this house is, if you want to be a jerk and build on land meant for you and your brother while he isn’t there, don’t take 80% of the lot. Just take the whole damn thing. Otherwise he might build a teeny tiny house next door so he can always be glaring through a window at you.
- Enjoy the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the views you get into the North End and into downtown Boston. I wasn’t lucky enough to have this when I lived here; instead, I had 93 and the Big Dig at the end of my street and, unfortunately for L., right outside her bedroom window. Now, it’s a gorgeous and relaxing place to hang out on a nice day. As a bonus, you can cool off in the Canal Fountain, if the kids leave you any room.
- Last but not least, don’t miss the summer feasts. Almost every weekend, there is a saint’s festival with a parade and music and way too much food, and although it can be irritating to be stuck in the middle of all this revelry for an entire three months when living in the neighborhood, it’s pretty awesome when you can visit on a weekend of your choosing. There are still three weekends left in August, so check out the schedule and go eat some arancini already. Seriously, you’re nothing but skin and bones!
If none of this interests you, visit anyway and check out all the historical stuff I’ve failed to mention here, like the Freedom Trail, Paul Revere’s house, and the Old North Church. For a neighborhood that’s only one square mile, the North End definitely makes the most of its space.