Nearly every group of immigrants to Boston started their American dream living in the North End. Then they moved on. The Italians, arriving in the 20th century, stayed. Today, pastry shops and vegetable markets, restaurants and salumerias line the neighborhood’s cobbled streets and alleys.
Paul Revere’s house is a popular stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail celebrating the American Revolution. Right next door, Gennaro’s 5 North Square restaurant represents a more recent history.
Nearly every group of immigrants to Boston started their American dream living in the North End. Then they moved on. The Italians, arriving in the 20th century, stayed.
Today, pastry shops and vegetable markets, restaurants and salumerias, fish and meat markets and coffee shops, where regulars sip tiny espressos at marble-topped tables, line the neighborhood’s cobbled streets and alleys.
Gennaro Riccio, the fourth generation of his family, will soon take over the eatery at 5 North Square. At only 21 years of age, he has the wisdom and confidence to bring in an artist for the transition.
Italian-born Marisa Iocco moves through the kitchen with an Audrey-Hepburn kind of grace. She charms patrons in the dining room with her elegantly Italian-accented English. The veteran owner-chef of restaurants such as the theater district’s Gallery Italiana, the cutting-edge La Bettola and seafood-savvy Mare (pronounced ma-ray), she gained regional acclaim, then national fame, as Esquire’s Best Italian Chef in America. Since then, she has brought her special brand of bella figura as the creative force behind dozens of restaurants.
Chef Iocco’s new brainchild is MangiAmerica, a concept that embraces Italian-American food at its genesis. Unable to find familiar ingredients, Italian immigrants invented an entirely new cuisine substituting American products in their family and regional recipes. In recent years, authors and food historians, including Michelle Scicolone, John Mariani and Mary Ann Esposito, have distinguished this Italian-American cooking from food in Italy.
The immigrants of a century ago reveled in the abundance of meat, substituted canned tomatoes during harsh winters and cultivated herbs in tenement window boxes. But over the years, restaurants diluted the recipes, prepared them badly or with poor quality ingredients, embarrassing anyone with Italian heritage.
MangiAmerica means to change all that. Utilizing the best ingredients she can find — locally caught fish, artisanal cheeses, handcrafted pastas — Chef Iocco is bringing Italian-American back to life.
Chef Iocco isn’t afraid of turning a few classics on their heads. Soggy linguini swimming in watery red clam sauce is banished. The upgrade uses fresh clams in their shells distributed throughout a bowl of handmade potato gnocchi and fresh tomato sauce. Arancini, deep-fried rice balls, are no longer shaped from leftovers. They start out as creamy mushroom risotto, are gently formed into fork-manageable size before deep-frying until golden, then arranged around roasted red peppers and shards of sharp provolone.
Nonna’s Sunday dinner is evoked in family-style offerings such as sausages with hand-stirred polenta; housemade pasta joins a long-simmered tomato sauce deeply flavored with pork ribs.
Even meatballs get an upgrade. Presented as sophisticated bar food, they come in bites of veal saltimbocca, pork and pancetta, eggplant — but that’s another column.
At some point, Chef Iocco will move on to the next challenge, rethinking and reinventing MangiAmerica as needed. By that time, the young, smart Gennaro will be well situated as rightful heir, welcoming both regulars and tourists to his dining room. Meanwhile, they work together as a team, and this old establishment is new again.
MARISA’S MUSHROOM ARANCINI
Serves 4 as an appetizer
For the risotto:
2 cups Arborio rice
2 tablespoons chopped onions
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces assorted wild mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon butter
12 cups vegetable stock (or water)
1/2 cup white wine
Salt, pepper, to taste
1. Heat olive oil over medium-high in a heavy bottom medium-size pot. Add mushrooms, garlic, onions; sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in parsley and rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until rice is barely browned.
2. Add white wine to the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil until reduced by half. Begin to add the vegetable stock slowly, about a cup at a time, stirring continually, until the risotto is completely cooked, 20 to 25 minutes. Bite into a grain of rice to check for tenderness.
3. Stir in salt, pepper, grated cheese and butter. Before making the arancini, allow risotto to cool for 2 hours.
To make the arancini:
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 cups bread crumbs
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups canola oil, for frying
12 ounces aged provolone, cut into thin wedges, for serving
4 roasted red peppers, for serving
1. Gently form the risotto mixture into balls. (Marisa measures 2 “shot glasses” of risotto for each one.)
2. Roll each one first in flour, then in beaten egg, and finally in breadcrumbs.
3. Heat the oil in a deep saucepan. Gently lower a few rice balls at a time into the hot oil and cook until golden. Drain on paper towels and keep warm on a sheet pan in a 200-degree oven until all are cooked.
4. Serve around a pile of roasted peppers topped with several triangles of sharp provolone cheese.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.