Italian food...the very words conjure up a myriad of images- all of which are delicious: long strings of spaghetti, bright red tomatoes, green leaves of basil, creamy white cheeses and of course the beautiful cured meats that are sure to pop up. I've so often found that when I announce, to whoever is listening, that I'm craving Italian, well I'm rarely met with opposition. There is something about the flavors of Italy- silky olive oil, pungent garlic, sweet basil, tangy tomatoes-that when combined just spell delicious in any number of wonderful formats.
Last weekend I was invited to join the wonderful folks from Bertolli on a tour of Boston's North End to discover the tastes of Italy. I'm sure you can imagine how quickly I responded yes on that RSVP! Founded in 1865, Bertolli is one of the leading producers of Olive Oil, entering the US market by the request of Italian immigrants. As time elapsed the company grew its exportation business, and today Bertolli supplies tomato sauce as well as frozen meals to the people of the United States (and beyond) as a way to bring authentic Italian food into the busy homes of America.
We all know the pressures of the day- long days at work or school, family obligations, the all important "fun" time that we try to schedule after responsibilities are complete- it doesn't add up to a lot of "free" time. Bertolli has created their line of products with the idea in mind that we should all be able to enjoy a classically Italian meal without spending hours in the kitchen. Even further, they know that even more authentic Italian ingredients can be found right in our own back yards-like the North End!
We began our day at Caffe Vittoria, a beautiful cafe located on Hanover Street established in 1929. Entering Vittoria, I felt like I was in Italy, darting into a cafe in search of good coffee after a morning in the Piazza. The decor calls to mind this very image, and you know you're in for a good cup of coffee as the walls are adorned with early espresso machine models. I selected a latte as my beverage, and indulged in an Almond Biscotti dipped in rich chocolate for my nibble. The coffee was good and strong, with a tight, yet creamy foam on top. Perfection. The biscotti was crisp, and full of almond flavor with the right amount of sweetness to offset the coffee. We were also treated to gelato-mint chocolate chip for me. The gelato, cold and creamy, was refreshing and indulgent all at once. It was quite a treat.
Somewhat begrudgingly, it was time to leave Caffe Vittoria, and we moved out tour along to Salumeria Italiana (151 Richmond Street). Salumeria Italiana may be one of my favorite spots in the North End. Though it's small in size, it's over loaded shelves are chock full of wonderful finds (truffle oil to good tuna, imported pastas, coffee and sauces) and at its head, a deli counter sits full of cheeses, cured meats and prepared salads (think octopus salad). The bounty of it's goods is almost overwhelming, however once you speak to any of the friendly workers they will assist you in finding exactly what you need- and all those things you never knew you wanted. We were treated to a wonderful cheese and olive oil tasting while we stood- if you ever have the opportunity to do this- please do. It is absolutely outstanding to taste the differences in olive oil. Just like wine, region, soil quality and weather can affect the taste of olive oil making it sweeter, or spicier, enhancing grass notes, or mellowing to a buttery richness. It is an experience to be had. Salumeria Italiana is the place to do it.
After experiencing the taste of earthy Italy, we moved on to Gigi's Gelateria, back on Hanover Street, to indulge in the cold treat. We were addressed by one of the managers who explained the wonderful process of making Gelato, how it includes more milk than ice cream, and how that process makes it far less filling, and far more refreshing. Gigi's also offers a wide array of sorbets which don't contain milk at all, and I elected to have wonderful cup combining both melon and grapefruit sorbet. The bright flavors that shown through these icy concoctions were truly outstanding. The grapefruit (by far my favorite) was the perfect blend of sweet and tart, full of real fruit flavor that made me feel as though I was chowing down on the actual nectar. Delicious.
Our next food stop- DePasquale's Homemade Pasta Shoppe, located on Cross Street. Frank DePasquale is a household name here in Boston, as his empire owns some of the best restaurants in the North End including Mare, Bricco, Gigi's and many others. I have been itching to go to his Homemade Pasta Shoppe since it opened a few years ago and welcomed this opportunity. We learned, as we crowded into the small space, that within those walls one single lady makes all of the pasta for all of his restaurants. While we were there, she stood, behind the counter, rolling out pasta dough and creating ribbons of spaghetti. The Shoppe produces numerous selections of handmade short pasta, flat pasta, shaped pasta, and ravioli. Their filled pastas are all inventive (think Eggplant and Fontina, or Artichoke and Goat Cheese), some are made gluten free, and all are made by hand. It is an amazing labor of love. I was able to take home a package of the ravioli-I'll report back once I've had a chance to indulge.
After we wrapped up at DePasquale's, we headed to Lucca's for dinner. Lucca sits at the head of Hanover Street and offers classic Italian fare. We were treated to antipasto plates, which I was thrilled to note included all of the key points I look for in antipasto- pickled vegetables, fresh seafood, cured meats, olives and cheese. Lucca added some heat to their vegetables which I enjoyed but heard from others might have been a bit much. They dotted the plate with beautiful fresh octopus, gorgeous fresh mozzarella and salami. I was in heaven, and I practically licked my plate clean- I remembered manners at the last moment.
We were treated to a dual entree- a split plate between a tagliatelle with large chunks of lobster meat and sweet corn both pureed and left whole adorning the dish, as well as a ravioli of sweet caramelized onions and goat cheese enhanced with fava beans and blistered cherry tomatoes. As much as I loved the tagliatelle, I was disappointed in the ravioli. I found the onions almost too sweet and overpowered the other, delicate, flavors of the dish. However, that tagliatelle was a show stopped with well balanced flavors and a generous portion of lobster.
We, being the over indulge rs that we apparently are, ordered all the desserts on the menu to sample. Standouts- a vanilla bean panna cotta which was creamy and light with perfect vanilla notes, and the chocolate torte which was rich and decadent.
Overall, the meal at Lucca was a wonderful showcase of Italian cuisine. Their Antipasto plate showcased the bounty of Italy from their Mediterranean seas to their olive trees and cheese makers. Their pasta was fresh and flavorful, and their desserts invoked that lovely sweet tooth that we all know Italians have. I've been to Lucca before and have always enjoyed my meals there- it is definitely a spot to check out.
I left our group after dinner and walked away feeling full. Sure, partly I was full from the decadent tour Id been on, but mostly I was full with knowledge. I was full from the feeling of knowing that finding good, authentic Italian products isn't more than just a trip to the North End, or, even better, a trip to your neighborhood grocer for a bottle or two of Bertolli Olive Oil or Pasta Sauce.