13 Italian Foodie Tips I Learned on a Culinary Tour of Boston’s North End (Plus 1!).
(This is part 2 of a review of a fantastic culinary tour of Boston’s Little Italy. Check out Randy’s North End Italian Culinary Review if you want to read the first one.)
I just want to say up front that I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this tour. I was excited to take a food tour because I had never been on one, and this tour completely blew me away. It was so much more than I expected. Not only did we get to sample amazing food, olive oil, vinegar, Limoncello and various other treats we were also treated to an unbelievable history tour of the North End and more importantly a lot of great nutrition facts. I have long been disheartened by the quality of food in the U.S. and it was amazing to learn things about the food industry that I had never known about before. Becoming more informed is key to eating well in a country bent on feeding it’s citizens junk disguised as food. It’s hard to become informed about food and nutrition and this tour made me realize that something was missing in my life.
The missing link is a chef.
I have never had a friend, relative, boyfriend or even an enemy that was a chef. I didn’t realize my life was lacking in this area until I took the North End culinary tour guided by chef Jim Becker. In the brief two hours I spent with him, Randy and approximately 8 strangers, I discovered that I am in desperate need of a friend who is also a chef. He knew EVERYTHING about food. It was two hours of foodie heaven. I STRONGLY suggest the North End Market Tour to anyone who lives in Boston, is visiting Boston, loves Italian food or cares about nutrition. You will learn a lot on this tour.
As a special note to all our Bostonian readers–why should you take this tour? How many times have you tried to get a good Italian meal in Little Italy? How many times have you walked away angry at how much money you spent while eating the equivalent of a bowl of SpaghettiOs?
I hear ya. I lived in Boston for years and NEVER got a good meal in Little Italy. NEVER. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It’s just that there is so many touristy restaurants that it’s hard to know the good from the bad. One of the greatest thing about this tour is that they give you a list of all the places they recommend. The list is amazing and it doesn’t only include restaurants–it also encompasses bakeries, delis, cheese shops, wine shops, coffee shops, etc. The list is basically the holy grail of North End food. If you live in Boston and have always wanted a true, good Italian meal in Little Italy then this tour will show you how to get it. Consider the $50 an investment in your health and in the future happiness of your taste buds.
This tour was unbelievable. Go, Go, Go–you won’t regret it.
I learned a variety of things on the tour that I never knew:
1. Eggplants are either male or female. The males have less seeds and are preferable for cooking. If you want to tell the difference look at the bottom–if it’s flat then it’s a female, if it’s a male it will have an indentation. If you plan to buy your eggplant in Little Italy, then you better get there early because all the Italian women buy up the males first.
2. The cinnamon we have here in the U.S. isn’t real cinnamon. To get the real stuff you most likely need to go to a health food store or you can buy it at Polcari’s in Little Italy. Keep this in mind if you or someone you know was recommended cinnamon as part of their health care routine. Most likely what you already have in the cabinet or go to buy at the supermarket won’t work. If you go shopping for the real stuff look for the kind that is called “Ceylon”.
3. In the U.S. we are sold Nutella loaded with trans-fats where in Europe their Nutella has no trans-fat. Our Nutella has a ton more sugar as well (shocking, I know). If you want to buy real Nutella look for the glass jar–the plastic jar is the first sign it’s a U.S. made (aka more fat/sugar) Nutella.
4. You can buy un-roasted coffee beans at Polcari’s and roast them yourself over the BBQ and it only takes about 45 minutes to do it. Fun! I’m definitely adding this to my bucket list. As a side note Polcari’s is out of this world – you can get so many Italian specialties there. If I was in Boston now I would be a regular.
5. Traditional Italian rosary beads are made out of carob beans! (The picture below shows a carob bean rosary sitting on top of raw almonds.)
6. Olive Oil that is greenish in color is made from unripened olives and has more of an intense flavor. Olive Oil that is more yellowish is from ripened olives. I like them both.
7. Most Americans eat olive oil that has already gone bad. Olive oil only has a shelf life of about 2 years. Most of the olive oil in the U.S. doesn’t have an expiration date on it and there is a good chance it has already gone bad. All olive oil in Italy has a sell by date. When the olive oil becomes expired they sell it to…Can you guess? Yup, the good ole’ USA. The Italians know better than to eat expired oil but our government doesn’t care what we eat and always wants to save a buck. (This is my own interpretation, not part of the tour–sorry.) So anyway, if you are buying olive oil see if you can buy one that has an expiration date printed on the back. If there isn’t an expiration date, there is a good chance it has already gone bad and has been put in an un-dated bottle to trick you.
8. Balsamic vinegar is one of the biggest food frauds to hit the U.S. in the past 20 years. True Balsamic vinegar only comes in two bottle shapes–see the photo below. If your bottle isn’t in that shape, it isn’t real balsamic. It doesn’t matter if it says “Made in Modena” on it. It may come from Modena, Italy but it isn’t real Balsamic. If you are confused keep in mind that the two tiny bottles below cost over $100 each–how much did you pay for yours? I learned on the tour it is a 12 year process from grape to balsamic vinegar. After the 12 years is up the producers have to take it to the agency in Modena that gives it the official stamp. The vinegar has to pass a rigorous set of inspections and it is extremely costly to have them done. Only the ones that pass get the stamp of being a true Balsamic and are sold in the two bottle shapes you see below. All the fails are sent to the US and sold here and sold in different bottle shapes. Yes, I’m serious. If you are shopping for a Balsamic try to look at the amount of ‘must’ in the bottle – the higher the better.
9. Little Italy in Boston is considered America’s oldest neighborhood and has gone through many changes, including being a Jewish neighborhood before becoming Italian – you can still see traces of past cultures in the shops and buildings that have once called the North End home.
10. You should never eat black canned olives. True black olives don’t exist in nature and our canned black olives are made that way by a chemical process. They are hardly even considered food. Don’t eat ’em.
11. Last September when we were WWOOFing on the farm in Italy our hosts bought us salted bread for the first day of work. They made a big deal about it and told us specifically they got us the good, salted bread. We didn’t think much of it but after that we only got non-salted bread. If you’ve eaten bread in Italy you’ve probably noticed that it is VERY hard–nothing at all like the ‘Italian’ bread we have here in the U.S. On the tour, we found out that years ago Italy put a tax on salt. As a result people stopped using salt in their bread, which is still common practice today. So that first day on the farm, we didn’t know it, but we were actually getting a big treat!
12. Most of the apartments in Little Italy did not have bathrooms–even up until the 1950s. People used outhouses behind the buildings. This cool little building ( now a community center) was actually the bath house for the residents of Little Italy. One day it would accommodate all the men in town, the next day it would be bath day for the women. When bathrooms became installed in the tenements most residents didn’t know what to do with them and stored ice in the bathtub.
13. If you eat any sort of Italian food with that has sesame seeds in it that type of food was created from an Arab influence. Sesame seeds are popular in Sicilian cooking due to the large Arab influence in that area of Italy but are hardly used in any other parts of Italy.
14. Italy did not become a country until 1861. The different regions were ruled by all types of different cultures throughout the years making each province very unique. As a result the food from each region is dramatically different from one another. If you ask for a traditional Sicilian dish on the mainland there is a good chance you won’t find it. To top it off it’s likely no one will even know what you are talking about. I had this issue in Italy myself while trying to find my favorite Italian pastry -Sfogliatelle (pronounced Sfoo-ya-dell) in Rome. Sfogliatelle is a family favorite and a holiday/birthday must in our household. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one in Italy. We were in Northern Italy for several weeks before heading south. Everywhere I went I looked for one but could never find it. Finally I found one in Rome but it didn’t look a thing like the one I was used to and it didn’t taste very good and I was a bit bummed to say the least. However in Naples I found them everywhere and they were incredible! My family is from Southern Italy and so after I figured out the link it made sense why the Sfogliatelle is such a favorite treat of ours. I did not know it was a southern specialty but it was virtually impossible to find anywhere in Northern Italy. So the fact I learned on the tour is indeed true. If you are visiting Italy with a favorite dish in mind be sure to look up the region where it originates from and have your meal there.
Full Disclosure: Our tour fee was covered by Boston Food Tours; though, our opinions, as always, are our own.
*Please remember all photos on this website, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted and property of BeersandBeans.com, NarikosNest.com & Bethany Salvon. Please do not use them without my permission. If you want to use one of them please contact me first because I do love to share and I would be flattered. Thanks!
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