Celebrating Italian Style In Boston’s North End

In Italy, feast days tied to saints are the glue that binds communities together. Bands practice all year long so they sound just right when they lead processions through city streets. People get dressed up and buy cannoli and other treats for their neighbors. Young people use the social occasions to hook up, and, everyone, everyone eats and drinks well.

Boston’s North End still clings to the same tradition, albeit with a more commercialized flavor. I stumbled upon the neighborhood St. Anthony Festival, an annual celebrtion started by Italian immigrants from the Italian town of Montefalcione in 1919, a couple weeks ago and was reminded of how important feast days are in the old country. We were driving by the neighborhood, which is directly adjacent to downtown Boston, and when my sons spotted two blowup jumpy houses we were compelled to stop.

My family hopped out and I was tasked with finding a parking spot – no easy chore in the North End, where a good spot is more valuable than a lifetime pass to the Playboy Mansion. I’m generally a very impatient person, but when it comes to parking, I’m frugal enough to hunt for meter spots because I hate paying a lot to park.After about 20 minutes of fruitless searching, I gave up and pulled into a lot, but pulled right back out when a small grumpy man in a folding chair asked me for 40 bucks. Three other cheaper lots were full, and another placed wanted $35. After another 15 minutes, I found a meter spot and felt like I was ready to pop open a bottle of Champagne. Alas, there was also a sign indicating that the spot was only for North End residents from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. But I decided to park there anyway and take my chances.

The streets were filled with vendors selling pastas, pizza, fried calamari, and more traditional American street fair food, like frozen bananas covered in chocolate, and New England staples like lobster rolls. The crowd was a mixture of tourists and locals but heavily accented by older people who knew each other and clearly still lived in the neighborhood.

A classic rock cover band cranked out a Doobie Brothers tune but turned off their amps as a spirited procession with two bands wended its way through the neighborhood streets. Teens and tweens played carnival games in the hopes of winning cheesy framed photos of starlets and celebrities (see photo). I stood and studied the faces that were marching by and was again reminded of Italy – none of the participants would have looked out of places in the villages my grandparents came from in Sicily.

As we sat on someone’s stoop, chowing down on gnocchi, ravioli and calamari, a woman who lived in the apartment next to the one we were sitting in front of stopped to tell us that we had a “beautiful family.” For Italians, there is no better compliment. And before we were done eating, a guy that lived in the apartment we were sitting in front of needed to get out, but my kids were blocking his path, tomato sauce dripping off their chins.

But he was gracious, practically apologizing for wanting to leave his own apartment. Everyone’s in a good mood on a feast weekend in the North End. And so were we, even though we had a $40 ticket waiting for us on the windshield of our car.

[Photos and video by Dave Seminara]

Boston’s Galleria Umberto: America’s Best Cheap Slice Place?

The Galleria Umberto Rosticceria pizzeria in Boston’s North End is named after a stunning, ornate 19th century shopping arcade in Naples. But the interior of one of the country’s best cheap slice places is as Spartan as they come. In fact, the place resembles a cafeteria or, if you’re there at lunchtime, when the lines stretch out the door and around the block, a soup kitchen.

Boston’s North End is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world. Despite the fact that it’s right smack in the middle of an expensive city that’s overflowing with wealthy, highly educated young people, somehow the neighborhood has preserved its distinct Italian-American character. Walk the streets of the North End on a nice day, and you’ll still see plenty of old timers sitting out on their stoops, speaking Italian.

There are dozens of good places to get pizza and other Italian specialties in the North End, but Galleria Umberto is the only place I’ve seen that consistently attracts long lines. Why? They serve damn good Sicilian-style slices of cheese pizza – no toppings! – for just $1.55.

I’ve been to Galleria Umberto (GU) three times for slices over the last few years and I’ve never waited less than about 25 minutes. But I love GU because their volume-driven business model is very 19th century. They have a razor thin profit margin, but sell thousands of slices of every day. Who opens a business these days charging ridiculously low prices, hoping to make it up with volume? Almost no one.

We have more high quality pizza places in the U.S. right now than ever before, but the prices keep going up to the point where pizza isn’t the cheap option it once was. In April, I had a chance to eat at Da Michele, one of the best pizzerias in Naples, and discovered that even the world’s best pizza doesn’t have to be expensive. That’s what I love about GU- they view pizza as a cheap staple, not a luxury.

My sons and I had five slices of pizza and two drinks and the bill came to $9.75. I can’t take them to McDonald’s for that price. Domestic beers are $3. And wines range from $2 -$2.50. Now that’s my kind of place. If you’re looking for a budget lunch in one of Boston’s most interesting neighborhoods, and don’t mind the wait, check out Galleria Umberto. What’s your favorite cheap place to get a slice of pizza?

Modern Pastry: Five steps to ordering in Boston’s North End

The line was nearly out the door when I stepped up to Modern Pastry. Though its neighbor, Mike’s, gets all the attention, every Bostonian knows that Modern is the best in the city, and just the thought of a cannoli from that establishment elicits Pavlovian salivation. I hadn’t been back since moving to New York six years ago, but everything was as I remembered … except the scale. Though the bakery hadn’t changed in size, my senses were nearly assaulted by the colors, cakes and smells. I hadn’t remembered just how powerful a presence Modern has.

The variety with which you’re faced upon entering can be intimidating. Everything looks great, and it can be a nightmare trying to decide what will actually go in your bag. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I have a history with the place. For a first-timer, or even an old pro with broader horizons, whittling your order down from “everything” can be a daunting undertaking.

Meanwhile, the other people in that long line are unlikely to have a lot of sympathy. There are plenty of locals mixed in, which is why the line tends to move quickly. They know how to order. So, if you hold one up with a series “ummmms” and “errrrrs,” you’ll get more than a few dirty looks.

So, how do you place your order, look like a seasoned veteran and avoid the ire of the locals? Follow these five simple steps:

1. Set boundaries: do you know how much you want to spend? That’s an inherent constraint on your order. If your budget is small, know right away that you’ll have to make some difficult choices. Be ready to live with them. Also, it’s smart to accept that you won’t walk away with everything you want, but let’s be realistic: you could spend the rest of your life trying to eat the results of your dream order.

2. Have cash: Modern doesn’t take credit cards. There are plenty of signs to this effect, which means you’ll have to give up waiting and dash off to an ATM. If you don’t bring cash with you and aren’t traveling alone, have one person wait while the other runs to get some green. Be sure to run, because as I mentioned, the line does move quickly.

3. Think ahead: look around as soon as you step inside the door, and give yourself a second to get over the shock. It’s going to happen. Then, focus. Make some tough decisions, and get your order straight. By the time you get to the counter, you should have it rehearsed and be able to spit it out quickly.

4. Don’t tell your life’s story at the counter: sure, you can slip in a pleasantry, but don’t forget why you’re there: to order pastry. The staff has already served a lot of people, and there will be many more behind you. Don’t add to their stress by chatting about how quaint the shop is or how much fun you’re having in Boston.

5. Skip the tables: you’ll know to do this if you read the many signs: to eat at the tables, you sit down first, and someone will come by to take your order. There’s a way things work at Modern Pastry, and the rules are in place for a reason.