Cookies, Cannoli and Finding my Roots in Boston’s North End

Every time I visit Italy I am half-searching for my grandparents. I won’t find them, they are dead now, but I’m always on the lookout for a smell, a taste, a old man in a cap, who will remind me of them. Even though they never actually lived in Italy, they taught me everything I know about being Italian.

Well, I found them, they weren’t in Italy after all, they were in Boston.

I don’t know why that would surprise me; in addition to being proud Italians, my grandparents lived in Massachusetts their entire lives. Not in Boston, but a small town in Central Mass. My Papa was not just a plumber, he was the honorary town mayor, and my Nonna was heavily involved in the church and the community. They were uniquely American: proud of their Italian heritage and their US nationality in equal measures.

Kind of like Boston’s North End.

The North End is actually one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods, dating back to the 1600’s. Paul Revere’s house is here, as is the Old North Church. Around the turn of the century though, the North End became known for something else: as Boston’s “Little Italy,” a haven for Italian immigrants.

Pretty much the first thing I did when I decided to visit Boston was to look for a food tour of the North End (frequent readers will know my love of both food tours and Italian food). I ended up going with Michele Topore’s North End Market Tour and it was a great choice.

As I went to meet the tour I got an email from my mother letting me know that my grandparents used to drive to the North End every few months to pick up specialty Italian groceries that they couldn’t buy elsewhere. Pretty neat I thought as our guide, Jim began to explain the history of the area. Today only 1/3 of the North End’s residents are Italian, but the atmosphere, and the restaurant scene, are still vibrant.

The first store we visited, Maria’s Pastry Shop, threw me for a loop. Everything about the store reminded me of my grandparents: the old men at a table in the corner, the canvas maps of Italy on the wall, even Maria’s half smile. Of course, I learned, Maria was from Avellino, the same town near Naples that my grandmother’s family came from. Her mannerisms, her accented Italian, and most of all the smell of her bakery hit me hard in the gut.

Then there were the sweets; crispy wafer thin pizzeles, crispy angel wings dusted with powdered sugar (my grandmother used to make them at Christmas) and brightly colored almond cookies. I’d totally forgotten about these bright green and pink tea cookies, but I remember them vividly from my childhood. Who knows, maybe my grandmother even bought them here in the North End.

And the cannolis. My grandmother never made them, at least not for me, but my Italian blood must crave them because I have zero willpower when it comes to cannoli.

The tour continued through other local shops; a spice store, an Argentinean/Italian cheese and pasta shop, a charcuterie. I learned a lot about the differences between Italian and American food (Italian food is better and better for you than most of the processed crap we eat here). If you’re looking to explore the history and local flavor of Boston’s North End, I can definitely recommend Boston Food Tours.

After the tour ended though I went back to Maria’s to pick up some pizzeles and a couple of cannoli for my Boston host Liz. I wanted to tell Maria about our shared Avellino connection but I didn’t. After all I’ve never even been there. So I just bought my cannolis and inhaled the sweet air deeply and missed my Grandmother.

And started planning my next trip to Italy….

Special thanks to Boston Food Tours for the complimentary tour. All overly-emotional opinions are my own.

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11 thoughts on “Cookies, Cannoli and Finding my Roots in Boston’s North End”

  1. I was in Boston last month during the Stanley Cup Finals. The entire city was decked out in Bruins paraphernalia. It was North End, though, that provided two of the hockey-mania highlights: I saw the two NBC commentators stroll by, discussing the weather; and spotted a Chicago Blackhawks fan pose for a photo with the statue of Paul Revere donning a Bruins #617 jersey.

  2. Okay, Italian pastries, now we are talking, nothing like popping a few canolis on a stroll in the neighborhood, now if you could only sample those those through cyber space, that would be excellent!

  3. This is excellent. The North End is one of my favorite places in the city. I’m also from a small town in Massachusetts (a little closer to Boston) and the North End has always been a reminder of my Italian heritage. Since I found out I am gluten-free I haven’t been able to have those cookies or cannolis, but they still make my mouth water.

    I may have to make a trip into the city this week!!

  4. The Boston Food Tour sounds amazing! I have heard that cannolis are absolutely delicious but have never tried one. I just may have to after reading your post.

  5. I love the canvas maps and have seen other locations with similar styled maps, but it seems that it’s more often Italy than any other country. Any ideas on the tradition or if they originate in Italy?

    1. Aren’t they just tea-towels? Maybe the ones in the photo are different to the ones I’ve seen but the majority in Italy are definitely tea-towel material and people use them as such…

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