BY JEFF LEVEN
Just as a study of Boston’s history would be incomplete without a visit to the narrow, winding streets of the North End, so too would an understanding of the city’s dining landscape. Mere steps from the sites of the Boston Massacre and Old North Church reside the best Italian restaurants in the city, and arguably the country. Whether you seek a dimly lit romantic table or the frenzied atmosphere of a crowded bar, the North End will happily oblige.
Many dining treks to the North End begin and end on Hanover or Salem Streets. These easily accessible parallel streets contain a dense cluster of excellent “default” dining options. However, the North End also includes many less familiar destinations, and the following overview of the neighborhood’s standout restaurants begins with several restaurants off these beaten paths.
Perched on a small hill with striking views of the Boston skyline, Mamma Maria draws its inspiration from the Italian countryside. Situated in a brick townhouse, the restaurant has several distinct areas, ranging from a one-table enclave to a large dining room. More upscale and formal than many of its North End counterparts, Mamma Maria’s menu offers treats across the food spectrum. Highlights include seared dayboat scallops with a Venetian vegetable ragu, homemade squid ink pasta, and possibly the best osso bucco (veal shank) in the city.
A few blocks from North Square, the Mendoza family opened Monica’s as a legacy to their Italian-Argentian heritage. While the menu often offers slightly different interpretations of North End classics, the results are generally excellent. The “free form” lasagna (ground meat and ricotta cheese envelope wide homemade pasta noodles) and mushroom ravioli are excellent, as are the seafood specials.
Sage on Prince Street is one of the North End’s gems. Diners jostle each other in the small, narrow dining room for some of Boston’s most creative Italian food. Chef Anthony Susi changes the menu weekly, and lately has been drawing on Asian influences. Consistently excellent offerings include the feathery, soft gnocchi that pairs particularly well with a sage and brown butter sauce. Susi’s foie gras, topped with a fried quail egg, is magnificent as are his risottos.
Piccolo Nido is another North End hole-in-the-wall, and its owner, Pino Irano is one of the neighborhood’s most gracious hosts in this small, romantic setting. The house specialty appetizer is calamari alla griglia, featuring tender pieces of grilled squid over mixed greens. The shrimp and asparagus risotto offers a mix of textures and flavors that serve as perfect complements to each other. The veal entrees, such as one topped with prosciutto and fontina, are also wonderful.
Chef Anthony Caturano named Prezza after his grandmother’s hometown in the Abruzzi region of Italy, but the menu’s creativity reveals as much about his experiences working for Todd English at Olives and Figs than his traditional Italian roots. Appetizers include baked stuffed oysters with radicchio, scallions, and mascarpone, and black mission figs wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with gorgonzola. Entrees range from a roasted striped bass with steamed clams to a 40 oz. porterhouse steak.
Trattoria Il Panino has become a Boston restaurant mini-chain. However, the difference between the original Palmenter Street location and its replicas is dramatic. During peak times, the wait is approximately an hour — and worth it. The menu is simple, reasonably priced and extremely well-executed. Excellent appetizers to share include the antipasto, fresh mozzarella and tomato salad, or thinly sliced house smoked salmon. While very rich, both the lobster and mushroom raviolis are marvelous as are the traditional meat entrees, such as veal saltimbocca. The house wine is surprisingly drinkable for under $20.
Although the above restaurants prove that a bit of exploration down North End side streets can unearth memorable meals, it is important not to overlook the many wonderful dining destinations located on the familiar stretch of Hanover Street. For calamari lovers, The Daily Catch is worth seeking out. The five-table restaurant serves up no-frills seafood dishes (pasta arrives on the skillet it was cooked on), and the calamari — prepared in every way imaginable — may be the best in town. On a recent visit, the fried calamari was greaseless and crisp, and the al dente squid ink pasta with calamari rings was excellent. Though a bit bland, the texture and uniqueness of the calamari meatballs makes them worth trying. One caveat: If you do not like calamari, skip this restaurant — the other dishes are less interesting and somewhat overpriced.
The waits can be long at Pomodoro, a cozy 24-seat restaurant. Once seated, however, you will dine on some of the best Italian food in Boston. Whether the impeccable marinara sauce is ladled onto a fried calamari appetizer or a piece of cod, it is divine. Classic dishes, such as linguini with fresh littleneck clams, ripe tomatoes, capers, parsley and garlic, are also excellent.
Taranta draws its name from a most unusual source: the tarantism epidemic that swept Italy between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries causing people to have an uncontrollable urge to dance. Even if you’re not a dancing fool, you will like this restaurant. The menu has many unconventional offerings, such as spaghetti topped with sea urchin and free form lasagna with sea scallops, peas and mint. The dessert menu includes a goat cheese cheesecake topped with Amarena cherries.
“Restaurant Row” on Salem Street also features many excellent options. Three standouts are Marcuccio, Rabia and Al Dente. While some complain that Marcuccio is too expensive when compared to the surrounding restaurants, few criticize the quality of the food. The restaurant is still working through the transition after the departure of Charles Draghi, the star chef who left to run the kitchens of Limbo and Noi. However Chef Roberto Dias continues many of Draghi’s traditions (including flicking wood chips into the wood-smoke oven to provide a smoky finish to meat entrees), and attempts to create some of his own. The kitchen’s sea bass and risotto di mare are consistent winners, and specials tend to be on the mark.
The faux grape vines on Rabia’s ceiling create an atmosphere that is simultaneously romantic and unpretentious, and the seafood entrees are marvelous (the seafood extravaganza special is delicious, but can be quite expensive). Call ahead to request the window table overlooking Salem Street before dining on dishes such as linguini with lobster tail, shrimp and scallops, or sautéed crispy soft shell crabs.
Owned by Joe Bono, the former sausage cart king, Al Dente has a diverse menu. Diners can stick to traditional Italian specialties: tomato and basil bruschetta, a caprese (fresh mozzarella and tomato) salad, and chicken marsala. But Al Dente also offers the ability to explore with items such as ricotta-stuffed eggplant rolls and prosciutto-stuffed paneed veal served with a red pepper risotto.
While many of these restaurants offer excellent desserts, skip them and conclude your North End experience with a stroll down Hanover Street. Mike’s Pastry offers a wide assortment of treats — try the massive chocolate dipped Florentine cookies. Better yet, wander two blocks past Mike’s to the often overlooked gem, Modern Pastry. This small shop offers the best cannoli in Boston with a succulent ricotta filling. Either way, Café Vittoria offers a charming setting to finish your evening while sipping on a perfect cappuccino or grappa.
Al Dente, 109 Sa
lem St.; 11-10 (M-Th), 11-11 (F, Sa); (617) 523-0990
Bricco, 241 Hanover St.; 5-12 (Su-Th), 5-1 (F, Sa); (617) 248-6800
Café Vittoria, 296 Hanover St.; Open until 1 (M-Su); (617) 227-7606
The Daily Catch, 323 Hanover St.; 5-11 (Su-Th), 5-11:30 (F, Sa); (617) 523-8567
Mamma Maria, 3 North Square; 5-10 (Su-Th), 5-11 (F, Sa); (617) 523-0077
Marcuccio’s, 125 Salem St.; 5-10 (Su-Th), 5-11 (F, Sa); (617) 723-1807
Mike’s Pastry, 300 Hanover St., (617) 742-3050
Modern Pastry, 257 Hanover St., (617) 523-3783
Monica’s, 143 Richmond St.; 5:30-10 (Su-Th); 5:30-10:30 (F, Sa); (617) 227-0311
Pomodoro, 319 Hanover St.; 5-11 (M-Su); (617) 367-4348
Piccolo Nido, 257 North St.; 4-10 (M-Th), 4-11 (F, Sa); (617) 742-4272
Prezza, 24 Fleet St.; 5:30-10 (M-Th), 5-10:30 (F, Sa); (617) 227-1577
Rabia, 73 Salem St.; 5-10 (Su-Th), 5-11 (F, Sa); (617) 227-6637
Sage, 69 Prince St.; 5:30-10 (M-Th), 5:30-11 (F, Sa); (617) 248-8814
Taranta, 210 Hanover St.; 5:30-10 (M-Sa); (617) 720-0052
Trattoria Il Panino, 11 Parmenter St.; 5-10 (Su-W); 5-11 (Th-Sa); (617) 720-1336