Head to Boston’s Hanover Street at the weekend and you’ll encounter long queues outside many of the cafes, restaurants and bakeries. This the heart of the city’s Little Italy, a vibrant quarter – bigger than New York’s version – that is popular with Bostonians and visitors alike.
But if you go on a tour of Boston’s North End with Anthony Gesualdi – and you really should if you’re in town – you’ll start to realise that some of the queues are not quite what they seem. Restauranteurs go as far as closing upper floor dining rooms to create long lines of people outside their establishments so they seem more popular. Others will pay several hundred dollars for awards from unheard of marketing institutions so they can put a shiny five star plaque by their entrance.
After 30 working years in Boston’s restaurant trade, Anthony knows all the tricks of the trade. His “politically incorrect” food tours provide the inside story on Little Italy, while giving visitors the chance to try tasty samples of everything from filled subs and focaccia to pastries and chocolates along the way.
Anthony started his tours after becoming frustrated with the existing offering of guided visits which seemed to just take visitors to places where the guides got a kick-back for bringing groups, rather than to outlets serving the best delicacies. What’s more, he found none of those running the excursions seemed to be Italian – or indeed live in the neighbourhood. How, Anthony thought, could they effectively guide through Little Italy?
As someone whose family arrived in Boston from Italy, Anthony is the perfect person to lead tours in the neighbourhood. He grew up in North End and tells tales of what it was like to live in the area before the tourists came. Many locals seem to know him as he takes his group through the streets.
Italians started moving to Boston in big numbers in the early 20th century. Some 40,000 people lived in a tightly packed area and new towering tenement blocks sprung up in place of smaller colonial houses to house the arriving immigrants. New specialist shops and other businesses opened to cater for Italian tastes.
But North End became run-down and, until a couple of decades ago, was a place that tourists really would not want to visit. Anthony’s parents bought a house for $20,000, which some told them was mad decision.
Since the 1980s the area has been on the up and property prices have skyrocketed. Most Italians have moved out of the neighbourhood, including those who run restaurants on the Hanover Street strip. Restauranteurs used to live above their premises, but now they can make sizeable sums renting their apartments out to yuppies and commuting in from spacious homes out of town.
On his tour he’ll take you to some authentic institutions like Polcari’s, established in 1932. It looks more like a museum than a shop, with rows of speciality coffees on the shelves behind the counter. The current owner worked in the shop as a youngster and never really left. He was given the business by his boss who didn’t have children and stipulated that it should remain unchanged.
The tour ends at Mamma’s house – the one bought for $20,000 – where tasty homemade pasta Bolognese is served to guests at the dining room table. Don’t ask for the recipe as it’s been perfected by 50 years of trial and error. There’s nothing written down with precise quantities. Mamma was away at her summer house in Cape Cod, but she had made her delicious pasta sauce for us before heading off.
Ending in her home, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and pictures of her family on the walls takes you back to a bygone era. Even as the yuppies continue moving in, Anthony’s entertaining tours are keeping the Little Italy of the past alive.