The first Italians arrived in the North End in the 1860s; their numbers grew in the 1880s and 1890s. Many of the first Italian immigrants worked as vendors of fruits and vegetables, peddlers and shopkeepers, selling food, clothing, and services needed by other residents of the North End. Over time, people began living together on streets segregated by the region of Italy - Sicily, Milan, Naples, and Genoa. Over the next decades, the Italian population of the North End increased and other immigrant groups moved elsewhere. By 1900, Italians had firmly established themselves in the North End, and by 1930, it was almost one hundred percent Italian. While now Italians make up less than half the population, the feeling of Italia is always there as made clear by all of the wonderful places to enjoy a fantastic meal.
While there on our last trip, my mother and I were looking for a place to have a late lunch, unaware that most of the restaurants close early and open again later for dinner. Lucky for us, we stumbled upon a lovely, old school Italian restaurant called Cantina Italiana. Cantina Italiana opened its doors in 1931 and is the oldest restaurant in the North End. Inside it is dimly lit and the ceilings are low, giving the restaurant a cozy feel. It’s set up very comfortably; high dark wood panels separate each booth, giving the patrons a sense of privacy and the seats have classic plush forest green cushions and there are plenty of tables for a romantic dinner. Our waiter recommended we try one of their specialties’; the Bombolotti alla Buongusaia. It is described as “Homemade Bombolotti pasta, tossed with spicy Italian sausage, fresh basil and marinara sauce, topped with parmigiano and fresh goat cheese, baked to perfection.” Many people have no idea what bombolotti is, mostly because you don’t find it on menus very often. It’s a long, tubular pasta with spokes in the middle, it is shaped like a wagon wheel and it has to be cooked perfectly al dente, otherwise you won’t appreciate the center of the pasta. The dish came out fresh from the oven in a large white ramekin, the cheese bubbling, steam escaping from the plate. It looked too perfect to eat, the pasta was layed out to showcase the unique size and shape, decorated with spicy Italian sausage and finished with a sprinkle of fresh basil and freshly grated parmigiano. It was a site and a taste to behold.
Now, when I finish a big beautiful meal, I need something sweet to cap it off. So what better place to go than Mike’s Pastry? Mike’s Pastry is a wonderful family run bakery and has been for over fifty years. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the assortment of sweet treats and expect a big line. Cannolis are what they are famous for. Most of the time Mike’s is packed and when you try the cannolis, you’ll understand why. For one thing, they have so many variations. Pecan and Caramel, hazelnut, pistachio, espresso, oreo, ricotta, chocolate dipped. You name it, they have it. When we went, we were lucky enough to grab a table pretty quickly. We ordered an espresso canolli and a cappuccino. I know what you’re thinking, one cannoli for two people? But trust me, when you see the size of these things, you’ll get it.
Now, I’m going to let you in on a deep dark secret. I was never a fan of cannolis. I love sweets but I just didn’t like them. They didn’t do it for me. But when I tried these for the first time at Mike’s last year, I had a cannoli epiphany. It was literally an “angels singing” moment.
Most cannolis traditionally have a ricotta filling, but the one I had was made with mascarpone (although they do offer ones with ricotta.) The filling was light, smooth and creamy. It had a sweet, subtle taste of espresso without being overpowering and the crunch of the chocolate chips added a nice contrast. The shell was crisp and crunchy, light as air, with just a touch of sweetness and not at all oily. It was the perfect cannoli.
In addition to cannolis they offer other classic Italian pastries like lobster tails, rum cakes, pasticiottos, taralli and they also offer a wide selection of cookies, cupcakes and brownies. I’d love to try something else, but every time I go, that cannoli is calling my name.If you have been to Cantina Italiana, Mike’s Pastry or any restaurant in the North End, please comment and let me know what you thought of your experience and more important, what you ate!! Ciao for now!