Growing up in the North End after World War II, some of my most vivid memories involve family dinners and the food we ate. Being separated from the rest of the city by physical and cultural barriers, we depended on our local food shops and what wonderful shops they were. The ground floor of many North End buildings had small shops that catered to the needs and customs of the Italian community. We had meat markets, fish stores, tailors, pharmacies, undertakers, pastry shops and so many more but the most important of all were the Italian grocery stores. The picture I’m sharing today will bring back warm memories to many old North Enders.
The year is 1934 and the gentleman in the photo is Luigi Silvestri in his new grocery store located in Angelo Belmonte’s building at 410 Hanover St., The Boston I Store, the I stood for Italian. How proud he looks because he has achieved the dream of almost every Italian male immigrant, he owns his own business. The counters and floor are pristine, the cooler has many kinds of salumi, eggs, butter and cheeses. Behind Luigi is the coffee and tea section and you can see the top of the coffee grinder over his left shoulder. Along the left wall are cans of imported Italian tomatoes and olive oil. Notice that the oil came in one gallon cans. Along the right wall are bins that held different beans, nuts polenta, flour and everything else a Southern Italian cook needed. What you don’t see is extra virgin olive oil at $50.00 a bottle or aged balsamic vinegar in small perfume bottles. We were the children and grandchildren of peasants and ate peasant food. We all used the same inexpensive wine vinegar, Gragnano, which came in quart bottles with a bunch of grapes on the label. I think it had the pH of sulfuric acid but it tasted great on a cicoria salad.
One interesting tidbit about North End food was that, as children, we all ate the same food on the same night almost every week. Over the past month I spoke to both Michele Tirella and Michele Gallarelli and they both gave the following dinner schedule:
Monday, chicken soup and a salad.
Tuesday, veal cutlets fried in olive oil.
Wednesday, pasta either aglio e olio or with a fresh tomato sauce. Wednesday really was Prince spaghetti night.
Thursday, some kind of meat, maybe a veal chop or my favorite pork chops with vinegar peppers.
Friday, fish, baked fried or Sicilian style.
Saturday, hot dogs and beans. Hey, this was America.
Sunday, the best day of all. Pasta sauce (gravy) simmering for five hours on the stove, stuffed mushrooms, home made cavatelli, stuffed artichokes, meat balls, bresaola, sausages. Basta.
As a kid growing up in the North End the best part of the many Italian grocery stores was the sandwiches they sold. Fifty cents for a small, seventy five cents a large, and hand cut every time. A small sandwich would have three slices each of Genoa salami, mortadella, capicola and provolone cheese. An extra quarter would get you two or three slices of prosciutto but no one ever had an extra quarter. Mustard, vinegar peppers, oregano or a drizzle of olive oil were free. Luigi’s son, Buster, would wrap the sandwich in white paper, seal it with tape and you could eat it sitting on a bench in the Prado. Nothing in the world tasted better than that sandwich.
Matt says I have to have another contest. I will give a $20.00 gift certificate for Salumeria Italiana to the first person who names the most Italian grocery stores in the North End. Not variety stores/bookie joints like Joe Black’s, Slimmies or Brother Bill’s but real grocery stores. Enter your answer in the comments section below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.