Anyone who has walked through the narrow streets of the North End can tell you that the place is one heck of a tourist trap. But in the midst of the fanny packs, flashy cameras and wide assortment of accents, the Italian neighborhood still manages to maintain a distinct character all its own. Where else in Boston can you get your fill (or overfill) of cannolis, pumpkin ravioli and prosciutto? No where else but Boston’s North End.
But believe it or not, despite the hoard of tourists currently frolicking through its cramped streets during today’s Columbus Day holiday, the Italian enclave wasn’t always overrun with visitors. No, more than 30 years ago the Boston streets were quite different. This photo (above) gives you a picture of Salem Street’s hustle and bustle from the 1950s.
To find out what is was like to live and work in the neighborhood, we decided to speak with Paul Barker, CEO and owner of Pauli’s restaurant in the North End.
Not only did Barker’s grandfather own and operate Pace’s grocery in the North End when Barker was a child, but his father bought and ran Caruso’s Market on Salem Street as well. In addition, his uncle started the neighborhood’s J. Pace & Sons gourmet food market. And to top it off, his mother even had a North End restaurant named Nicole’s. His family has worked in the food related business in the North End since 1965. The food business clearly ran in this North End family’s blood — and Paul was no exception.
His eatery, located near the base of Salem street, serves mostly wraps and sandwich fare. He tells me that his cooking was most influenced by his mother. Barker describes the matriarch as “one of the hardest working, most caring people I know … she worked three jobs, raised a family and started and managed a very successful restaurant until her retirement.”
But how does the North End of the past compare to the North End today? Having witnessed the neighborhood change firsthand, Barker shares his thoughts.
What was the North End like 30 years ago and how is it different today?
Let me take you back to the 70s. I grew up working at my family’s supermarket (Caruso’s Market) and groceria (Pace’s Grocery), both on Salem Street. In those days, the North End was filled with meat markets, grocerias, fish markets and bakeries. While there were much fewer tourists, there were many more shoppers coming to the North End to buy their meats, cold cuts, Italian groceries, imported items and baked goods. Many of the merchants and patrons spoke in Italian and families were coming to shop at family run businesses to buy items they could not find outside of Boston in their towns.
At the same time, during the last 30 years, we have also seen a trend in the change of inhabitants of the North End. Apartment buildings used to be occupied by families of Italian descent and now are being occupied by young urban professionals and college students.
Do you think that tourism has negatively affected the authenticity of the Italian North End?
I think it’s different and a natural progression. Tourists now come to the North End for that Italian and cultural experience. Instead of coming here to buy goods to take home and prepare on their own, they are coming here to have their favorite foods prepared for them in a part of Boston with over 400 years of historical significance.
Do you think the North End has lost its charm over the years?
I think the North End has not lost any of its charm. The North End has a lot of history, from a Historic sense – playing a significant role in the Revolutionary war – or just being an area of strong Italian influence. Even with all the increased development and changes made in the last 30 years, the community has done a great job in preserving its old world charm. The North End with its winding small streets, unique small shops, old buildings and historic significance is still a favorite part of the city of Boston and tourists alike.
Tell us your thoughts on the North End. Do you find it authentic and charming or just another Boston tourist trap?