Eating around in Boston

The way to the heart of Boston is through its stomach.

Published November 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

moving to Boston is a lot like a blind date: There's a nervous excitement about an exploration into the unknown, followed by the realization that these sorts of things are awkward, unforgiving and rarely end in sex.

Make no mistake: Boston is doing just fine without me -- and without you, for that matter. Although just down the road at Plymouth, the Pilgrims set up shop, this is nonetheless a city in no hurry to take in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Sure, once you scrape away that snowy New England surface, there is a certain love to be had within the Bostonian's frost-bitten soul, but these people take a long time to warm to anyone not sired within the city's elitist red-brick walls.

Maybe it's the hordes of students -- those rat bastards who under the guise of higher learning descend upon this town every fall, traveling in groups of 15, rendering stupefying lines at every ATM machine, making parking a car an even more horrifying experience and getting in the way of everything -- who have put Bostonians in such a foul mood. Perhaps it's the fact that the transition between scorching-hot summer and bone-chilling winter lasts about three days (it's a wonderful 72 hours, though). Or maybe no one's over The Curse, the fate of a city that traded Babe Ruth, ensuring that the Red Sox would never again win a World Series and that all Bostonians would forever remain bitter, spiteful codgers.

In Boston I get the feeling that no one wants to be bothered with a newbie like me, yet somehow returning locals can effortlessly bounce around town making conversation, whether they're chewing the fat with the chi-chi Newbury Street poseurs or the down-to-earth jeans-and-flannel crowd of Jamaica Plain. I think the problem is one of language. Besides the fact that I don't come equipped with a dreadful accent that makes any word with an "a" in it indecipherable, I just haven't learned how to speak to these people yet. San Francisco, where I spent the last six years, runs on the language of reinvention: Who do you want to be and where are you going next? Boston's linguistic code is one of history and lineage: Who are you now and where do you come from?

My friend Chris, who's lived in Boston for five years, says it takes five years for a newcomer to be accepted by the locals. Having arrived from a city that greets every college dropout at the gate with a latte and a job in a video store, I can respect the ethos: Make 'em earn it. It's a sensibility based on certain standards. And a society without standards is one with boring politics and bad pizza. Boston, to its credit, has neither.

And so, with less patience than is perhaps needed for this expedition and a good four and a half years away from getting so much as a hello from the regulars at the local cafe I frequent every day, I set out to find a little warmth in a city that calls itself the Hub. I did it the only way I know how: by frequenting the drinking and eating establishments of a place that likes to eat and drink. Besides, I just got here; I'm in no mood to cook.

A brief word about the Hub. The phrase refers to "The Hub of the universe," which a long time ago a proper Bostonian dubbed this city. That may have been true during the Revolutionary War, but it's laughable that any place could call itself the Hub without irony in 1997 and not offer at least one 24-hour falafel joint. We'll leave it at that.

Regardless, my quest for a little friendliness in Boston led me to Little Steve's House of Pizza, located on Boylston Street just off the low-rent end of Newbury Street (the side that features the famously unfancy record store Newbury Comics, not the Talbot's end). We had heard that the portions were large, but these slices were so big that Cheryl, my partner in 'za, requested hers be cut in three.

When one of the gooey troughs of sauce-covered dough slipped off her plate, I scooped it off the floor, to which Cheryl offered, "Leave it there, I couldn't have finished all this pizza anyway." But Little Steve would have none of it. He summoned me to the counter, where he proceeded to send me back with another, un-floor-fallen piece for Cheryl. (He clearly comes from the "fallen ice cream cone" school of restaurateurism.) Steve's slices are so big and so bad it's a wonder he remains in business. But as all college kids know, a slice is a terrible thing to waste, and this house of pizza is spitting distance from Berklee College of Music, Simmons, Emerson and Northeastern. My theory: Though he may be the nicest person in this city, I still think Steve is trying to kill all of Boston's students with his artery-clogging pizza. It's a nice thought at least.

Make no mistake, if Boston is the Hub of anything, it is the Hub of students, whom, if you're coming to town between the months of September and June, you'll want to avoid. Fortunately, two of the most student-free zones are two of the best, the North and South ends.

Like much of Boston, the North End is old, unchanging and impossible to park in. But the difference between this End and everywhere else is that it's ruled by Italians, people who are comfortable with the concept of a lot of people showing up for dinner and then leaving. And I think that's why the North End is more inviting than most of Boston: North Enders know that whether you grew up in New Jersey or in Natick, you are eventually going to finish your dinner and go away. It follows then that they don't mind being nice to you.

Much like the entire country of Italy, it's tough to get a bad meal in the North End. Hanover Street is wall-to-wall fish, pasta and cannolis -- the three most important parts of any Bostonian's diet, especially since he's going to be spending half the year hidden under a wool sweater anyway. Personally, I swear by Pomodoro, a down-home-but-not-cheap spot that puts new meaning into fried calamari with homemade red dipping sauce as comfort food. (Note about the North End color scheme: Red rules. Red wine. Red sauce. Red lipstick. Red heels. It's all red.)

The key to the North End is not eating your dessert where you eat dinner. You've got to move around a little, let all that salami and white clam sauce wiggle around a bit in your belly as you troll Hanover and neighboring Fleet Street in search of something sweet, which, if not a cannoli, means an ice cream cone. As with the burrito wars of San Francisco and the pizza fights in New York, people in Boston take their ice cream quite seriously and quite personally. New Englanders eat more ice cream than anyone else in the country, and for good reason: From the gelato of the North End to the shakes of J.P. Licks across town, Boston packs the greatest ice cream in the world. The best in town? Emack & Bolio's -- or at least that's what my girlfriend says. She's from Boston, so there's little use in arguing.

If you can make your way out of the North End and past the Big Dig -- some sort of convoluted construction project costing billions of dollars and wreaking complete havoc on traffic, all in the name of connecting the city so places like the North End can be even more impossible to park in -- you will find the quaint South End. While the North End remains red, the South End has turned increasingly white as it's become the adresse de rigueur for young gay men in the last 10 years. The most racially mixed area of the city, this rapidly gentrifying area has yielded a new community health center (whose groundbreaking was attended by Al Gore and Bill Weld) and a lot of seared ahi in its many new trendy cafes and restaurants. Depending on whom you ask, both of these developments can be viewed as progress.

Lest you shockingly misdirect your cabbie on the way there, it's also important to note that the South End should not be confused with South Boston, aka Southie, which is old and white and Irish and would like to stay that way. The good folks of South Boston are probably some of the least excited people to meet someone new to their precious Boston; thus I am not very excited to meet them.

Not that the South End is all that inclusive. The many Caribbean families that have been in the area for 30 years pretty much keep to themselves, though they seem to be having the most fun of anyone around. And then there's the South End Gay Boy Mafia, usually seen in packs of threes and fours, wearing tight white T-shirts and looking tastefully annoyed.

You can see them at spots like To Go, a cafe that brews the coffee in the neighborhood, and Metropolis, a tiny bistro that does such good things with fresh fish and vegetables that I accidentally decided to move to Boston after eating there. Then there's the surprising Anchovies, a restaurant and bar that at first glance seems like it should have been tucked away in some alley in North End but landed on South End's historic Columbus Avenue. When I'm sitting at the bar at Anchovies, eating mushroom rigatoni, salad and a glass of red (all for about $10), chatting with the bartender (who's actually quite friendly) and watching the Sox lose yet again, somehow the realization that five feet of snow will be dumped on this town any minute now just doesn't seem so bad.

Anchovies' neighbor, Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, shares its local flavor and the friendly confidence of a spot that knows it's going to be there long after everyone else is gone. Charlie's has been serving its delicious french toast and heart-attack-on-a-plate omelets since 1927. And while an institution, it has never become a caricature of itself: Charlie's refuses to turn into a museum-version of the real thing.

Like so much of Boston, Charlie's is very old and not very hip. That's one of the nicest things about this city. It's got nothing to prove, which means Bostonians walk around with a confidence that is hard to understand, exuding a look that says, "I have no need for you, Mackdaddy." And after a while, the rudeness kind of grows on you.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Delux Cafe, tucked away on a sleepy South End corner, is where you'll find the folks who really meant to live in the East Village, but have somehow lost their way. Delux seems to have a huge magnet on its roof pulling every pierced and dyed young thing in New England to its Elvis-kitsched walls and deceptively creative food (who knew mac and cheese could be this good?). Like any hipster worth his weight in henna, Delux's menu reinvents itself every few months. The mouth-watering homemade chips and salsa, however, never go anywhere. Ultimately, as the young and the restless continue to find themselves outpriced in Boston's Beacon Hill area and out-yuppified by the Back Bay, the face of the South End should continue to look more and more like Delux. The second-best place in Boston, Delux represents a South End in transition.

But Wally's -- the finest joint in all of Boston -- does not want to change. And one hopes it never will. Located on Massachusetts Avenue (that's Mass. Ave. to you) along the Roxbury border (a largely black part of Boston that for some reason isn't actually allowed to be in Boston itself), Wally's is a bit on the edge for most Bostonians. Thus, no matter how many times this funky old dive wins Boston magazine's best back-room jazz bar award, it cannot be overrun by masses of folks looking for blues from a cookie cutter. There are a few truths that Wally's holds self-evident: Jazz and blues should be heard every night; there should be no cover to get in; and the beer should be ice cold. Old black guys from the neighborhood drink with awkward white kids from the nearby Berklee College of Music as Jose Ramos, "Boston's best Latino blues singer," belts out deep covers of James Brown and Bobby Bland.

A few months ago, when the bartender finally handed me the Rolling Rock I had been waiting and waiting for at 1 a.m. on a hot summer Monday, he looked me in the eye and said, "Son, it's on the house. No man should have to wait that long for a beer." When the beer hit my lips, cold as anything I've ever encountered in Boston, I was beset by a warm glow. Either I was getting a quick beer buzz or, perhaps, in a frosty town as tight-lipped as a country club, it was possible to thaw the place out a little. After almost six months, Boston and I are still getting to know each other. Maybe there will be a second date after all -- and who knows, Boston might even respect me in the morning.

By Larry Smith

Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications.

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