At the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants flooded into America in search of a better life. They established enclaves in most major cities. “Little Italy’s” sprang up in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and most major immigrant destinations. They gave Italians a taste of the old country. Restaurants, shops and grocery stores dotted the landscape. Non-Italians came to visit, intrigued by the pastas hanging in the windows, the home made sausage spiraling down from the ceilings and by the hospitality of the shopkeepers.
Sadly, a century later, those “Little Italy’s” are vanishing. New York’s once bustling immigrant center is shrinking. The same fate has befallen areas in San Francisco and Chicago. The grandchildren of the original Italians are moving out. other immigrant groups are moving in.
But there is hope for the way things used to be. It lies in Boston’s North End.
Stroll down Hanover Street and stop. Close your eyes and smell. The aroma of long simmering tomato sauce, frying sausage, and sautéing garlic brings this grandson of Italian immigrants back home. A call of “rice balls!” brings me back to my current surroundings. A woman, who looks surpassingly like my Grandmother is hawking arincini, fried balls of rice from a cart..
Where to begin? Several restaurants had been recommended by friends. Bricco? Lucca? They both looked and smelled like the “Old Country.” But we were looking for something else, a place that called to me like the smell of frying meatballs in the morning..
A glass of wine always clears my head. As my Grandfather used to say, “get me a glass of wine so I can wet my brain and say something clever.” Perhaps a beaker of Turausi made of the Aglianico grape grown near my Grandfather’s home region of Avelino. Or Fiano, a light white wine native to the same region. Most of the wine bars which dot Hanover Street were not yet open, after all, how many patrons want a glass of wine at 11am? The door of Nico was ajar but sadly a woman informed us that they were not quite ready for business. “A, but there is a place open now,” said a gentleman with an Italian accent from the bar. “Come, let me show you.”
And with typical hospitality he left his post to point the way. “It’s called Strega.”
And it’s a find. I still can’t decide if I first fell in love with the amatriciana, a tomato based sauce with sauté onions, pancetta and garlic with just a tough of basil. Or was it the freshly made mozzarella lying side by side with slices of home grown tomatoes, drizzling with olive oil
and dotted with a chiffinade of fresh basil. Or maybe it was the Vermentino, another of Italy’s under appreciated white wines, or the aforementioned Turausi. So many choices, so little time..
The food and wine were marvelous, but the shinning star if Strega was Carlo. To the him the bartender would do a disservice. He is a champion waiter, an expert in wine and a storyteller..and by the end of the meal, he was a friend. Sure, it helped that he migrated from Avelino, just like my Grandfather. He grew up just one town over from my roots..
“When I bring your next dish, you will want to kiss me.”
I had no idea what was coming next because I put myself in Carlos’ capable hands.
Sure enough, I kissed him. Twice. He carried a plate with both hands. I want sure if it was because of the weight or the importance of the contents. “Here,” he said. “a taste of Sunday from home.” We stared down at a meal I indeed ate every Sunday in my Mother’s kitchen. Meatballs, sausage and braciola kissed my at long simmering tomato sauce that got me out of bed every Sunday morning..the late was dotted by rigatoni. As Carlo grated parmigiana cheese on the object of desire, he offered another glass of wine. This time a Super Tuscan.
Heaven. Pure unadulterated joy. Home.
We left reluctantly as if I was leaving my Mother’s kitchen, not sure of the return date.
Sadly, The Little Italy’s of America are shrinking, but at least on this day, with this meal, Boston’s North End, gave this Grandson of Italian immigrants a trip back to a simpler, gentler time. Home.