Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, called America the “Utopian product of a culturally and racially mixed “smelting pot.” Melting pot rapidly became one of the most frequently used metaphors for describing America. The term describes the fusion of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions and cultures to form a new, ostensibly better community, a heterogeneous whole.
Implicit in the term melting pot is the way ingredients in the pot combine so as to subord (but not lose entirely) their discrete identities, yielding a final product with a more uniform flavor and consistency, but which is distinctly different from the original components. It’s the reason Italian neighborhoods in America have some semblance to, but aren’t exactly like their tight-knit counterparts in the mother country. It’s the reason Italian food in America bears an unmistakable likeness to Italian food in the old country, while being discernibly different.
It’s a tribute to the miracle of Democracy called America that entire cultures can integrate into the whole while retaining proud vestiges of their past. One such example is Boston’s North End, sometimes called “Little Italy,” a vibrant and thriving neighborhood replete with restaurants, most of them Italian.
Boston’s North End is also home to some of the most significant and storied symbols of American history. The Freedom Trail winds and curves through the North End’s narrow and compact cobblestone streets past the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s home, the Copp’s Hill burial grounds and more historically significant landmarks,seemingly around every corner.
The neighborhood’s deeply-rooted ties to the Italian culture neither obfuscate nor draw attention away from the Freedom Trail. Their co-existence is a symbiotic tribute to the melting pot concept. Also co-existing quite well are sophisticated Italian restaurants with their red-sauced pasta brethren. Thirty years ago when I called the Boston area home, most of the restaurants specialized in pasta with red sauce or pizza served within dark interiors with suspended Chianti bottles serving as ambience. The more upscale restaurants specializing in Northern Italian cuisine had a presence, but it wasn’t quite as well established.
Whether you prefer the sophisticated fare or a more elegant and refined dining experience, the North End has it all for you. One commonality is that you won’t be hungry when you’re done with your meal. Eating well has always been a hallmark of Boston’s North End.
When we were planning our eating excursion to the Northeast, I sought out the rede of Barbara Trembath, a faithful reader of this blog who has not only led me to some great dining finds in New Mexico, but who travels to the Boston area as often as I’d like to. Her recommendations included Mama Maria’s, the most highly regarded restaurant in the North End as well as Mike’s Pastry which she called “THE PLACE for dessert in Boston.”
Also in Boston’s North End, Mike’s Pastry hardly sounds like the name of an Italian bakery, much less one whom Boston contributors to Urbanspoon rate as THE very best restaurant in Boston. That’s not just best bakery or best dessert. That’s best restaurant, period! Mike’s Pastry also earned four out of four stars from the Boston Globe. It’s got credentials, it’s got cachet and it’s got the pedigree to be the best.
Mike’s Pastry was launched in 1943 by Mike and Annette Mercogliano (now that’s Italian). In more than six decades, it has sated the sweet tooth of presidents, celebrities and visitors from every corner of the globe. Mike’s is renown for the lines which stretch out the door, especially on chaotic weekends in summer.
The bakery’s front area includes seating for 50 although the fire marshall might be concerned at how cramped that seating is. If you’re fortunate enough to nab one of the small tables, you should do so. Just make sure you have a good vantage point to the bakery’s pastry cases which are awash in color and imagination. People-watching is also interesting though few of the people are as intriguing as those pastries.
A dizzying array of cookies, marzipan, gelato and some hard-to-find Italian specialties will tempt the most dedicated of dieters. The marzipan, artisanally crafted by mixing sugar with finally chopped ground almonds, occupies two shelves and is as colorful as a fruit stand while looking exactly like the real thing sans any blemishes.
Aside from pastries, the bakery offers a nice selection of Italian breads, lovely loaves of the staff of life just beckoning for capicola, sopressata, prosciutto or any other wonderful Italian salted and cured meat. A variety of cakes, sold by the slice or whole, is also available. The tiramisu and rum cakes are legendary as are the sweet cheese pastries. Caloric overachievers are in their element surrounded by all this decadence and deliciousness.
Consensus will never be achieved as to just what is the best of the best at Mike’s Pastry, but most patrons seem to gravitate toward one of the bakery’s cannoli. These cannoli are several orders of magnitude better than any cannoli we’ve ever had. The ricotta cheese is fresher and richer, the shells more flavorful and best of all, those shells are more generously engorged with that incomparable cheese.
Cannoli at Mike’s Pastry also doesn’t mean just one type of cannoli. The Florentine Ricotta Cannoli, for example, includes that amazingly creamy and decadent cheese filling, but that filling is stuffed into a shell whose flavor is somewhat reminiscent of toffee. The Florentine shell is sweeter and harder than the standard shell and will now forever be the standard against which I judge all cannoli.
Ordinarily the chocolate dipped cannoli dusted with confectioner’s sugar would have been the star attraction, but that Florentine Ricotta Cannoli is something the Concord poets would have rhapsodized with song and verse and something lonely men might propose to. Like its Florentine cousin, the chocolate dipped cannoli is humongous, like cannoli on steroids and it’s filled from the top of the shell to its bottom, no annoying air pockets. Throughout the North End, you’ll see locals and tourists alike carrying small boxes bearing the luscious logo of Mike’s Pastry. No doubt those boxes include cannoli.
Almost as amazing as the cannoli are the pistachio macaroons. Sweet and rich would just barely begin to describe them. These puffy gems are covered in powdered sugar, but not so much that you can’t see the greenish hue of the pistachio through the snow-like covering. The outside offers just a bit of resistance before you bite into the chewy, almond-imbued inside spotted with pistachios. I’m generally mad for macaroons and these are what all macaroons aspire to be like.
Lemon and raspberry bows are also incomparable. Cookie dough envelops real lemon and raspberry filling on these two-bite-sized gems.
Mike’s Pastry is a veritable cornucopia of decadence with a plethora of pastries, a bounty of breads, a torrent of torrones and so much more. It’s a melting pot of Italian desserts done incomparably well.
300 Hanover Street
LATEST VISIT: 21 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Florentine Ricotta Cannoli, Chocolate Dipped Cannoli, Raspberry Bow, Lemon Bow, Pistachio Macaroon