If you walk down Hanover St. today the most noticeable characteristic would be the tremendous number of restaurants and coffee shops, many with long lines of tourists waiting to get in, a very different scene from the mid twentieth century.
When I was young there were a half dozen or so upscale North End restaurants; Mother Anna’s, Felicia’s, Stella, Giro’s, the Italian Canteen and, of course, the much missed European. Many generations of young North End men worked as bus boys, waiters and cooks and some went on to start their own restaurants. These places basically catered to tourists and few North End families ate out except for very special occasions. First of all, who could afford it and why would anyone eat out if your mother or grandmother cooked far better meals at home? We did have several breakfast and lunch places. My favorite was Pal’s Lunch where Chi-Chi grilled the best corn muffin anywhere.
Boston as a whole was not known for elegant dining with the exception of two premier restaurants, Locke Ober Cafe’ and the Ritz Carlton dining room. Every celebrity who came to Boston ate at one of those places and all the City’s movers and shakers were regulars.
My mother was one of eight children who grew up in a typically poor North End family. They lived is a series of tenement apartments and all the children worked to help support the family. Her dream was to be a proper “lady”, not an easy task when you’re raising two kids in a three room cold water flat. My father tried to please her by bringing home an occasional bottle of Asti Spumante but what she always wanted was to eat in the dining room at the Ritz.
One day when I was about eight years old my father surprised (shocked is a better word) us by saying he was taking us to lunch at the Ritz. We all dressed in our best Filene’s Basement clothes and my father, who shared Ted Williams aversion to ties, actually wore a sport jacket with a house tie. Cadillac Sam drove us from Lewis St. in his beat up limousine and I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face when the doorman at the Ritz opened the car door with a smile and a tip of his hat.
My father’s childhood friend, Mario, was the maitre d’ and he escorted us up the stairs to the most magnificent dining room I had ever seen. It was like a palace, albeit one that seemed strangely empty since we were the only diners there. Linen table cloths and napkins, real bone china and the beautiful cobalt blue water glasses. Another friend, Shrimpie, was the house bartender and he sent over a glass of C.C. on the rocks, a real indulgence for my father. The meal was superb, the best hamburgers my brother and I ever had, and I even tried baked Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream for desert. I think my mother floated back to the North End.
I always wondered about this lunch because it was so out of character for my father to spend that much money. He was a guy who spent nickels like they were sewer covers and who made his brother Freddie promise to attach a U-Haul to the hearse so he could take it all with him.
Years later, at my father’s wake, I asked my uncle Willie how my father could afford a family lunch at the Ritz. Willie took me aside and said, “the truth is, Nicky, he never paid for that lunch”. Apparently, wealthy families used to keep an open tab at the Ritz and receive a monthly bill. Mario slipped our bill onto someone else’s tab. Mario had to sneak us in after the regular lunch crowd had left so no one would notice us.
But of course, now it all made sense. My father, small time North End hustler that he was, had pulled off another fast one.
“So Willie”, I said, “who actually paid for the meal”? “Well it was a long time ago”, said Willie, “but I’m pretty sure it was the Taylor family, the people who owned the Boston Globe”.
Almost sixty years have gone by since that luncheon and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I would like to belatedly thank the Taylor family for giving me a life long love of baked Indian Pudding and for making my mother feel like a Queen if only for a day.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. 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.