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Home of my heart

Mailboxes on Cooper Street (North End of Boston), 1981 ©Anthony Riccio

Mailboxes on Cooper Street (North End of Boston), 1981 ©Anthony Riccio

I grew up in a small Italian village on the East Coast of the United States. At least, that is how I think of growing up in Boston’s North End. I don’t like to call it “Little Italy” because we never called it that. It was just “the North End.” And it was a special place just because it was an Italian place. There was a certain style and rhythm to the North End, a certain flavor and mood, which came from Italian and found its roots in a new land.

I was born in 1958. My mother, father, sister and I lived in a small (600 sq. ft. maybe) apartment in a building off Charter Street. The toilet was outside in the hall, the heat came from old radiators, and the windows had drafts. But it was the most comfortable and warmest place I have ever lived.

My father was from East Boston while two of my mother’s sisters had moved to the North Shore. But my Aunt Sylvia lived with my grandfather Antonio a block away from us, and I had other ‘aunts’ as well — friends of my mothers who were really like second mothers to me. There was Auntie Anna, and Auntie Josie, and another Auntie Anna. My mother was like another mother to their children. And the people who lived around were “paesani,” or lifelong friends. That was what the North End was like – like a single family.

J & N Market, Corner of Prince and Salem Street (North End of Boston), 1980 ©Anthony Riccio

J & N Market, Corner of Prince and Salem Street (North End of Boston), 1980 ©Anthony Riccio

We had dinner at my grandfather’s apartment during the week. My aunt Sylvia worked so my mother cooked for my grandfather and it was easier for all of us to eat there together. On Monday nights, my mother usually cooked some kind of Italian dish. One I remember was called “La Wedza.” It was made with pepperoni, cabbage, and beans, olive oil and garlic. Tuesdays and Thursdays were macaroni or spaghetti, with gravy (not sauce) meats, a cooked vegetable (maybe broccoli rab), followed by salad and fruit. Wednesdays weren’t Prince Spaghetti night, but ‘American’ night, when my mother might have made a soup with hot dogs or steak, with rice and peas or corn, (and salad after, always). Friday nights were either fish or pizza — with salad.

I don’t remember what we had on Saturdays, but Sunday was always the big family dinner. I don’t have to tell you what we had because if you’re Italian then you know. By the way, every meal had wine made by my grandfather in his cellar. And just like we didn’t call the North End “Little Italy,” we didn’t call our food “Italian food.” It was just our food.

I gave a whole paragraph above to describing the food we ate because it was such a big part of growing up there — just like family. Food and family were “two very important things to a child growing up in the North End,” Victor Passacantilli said in a documentary now being made about the neighborhood. That documentary is being produced by the North End Historical Society, of which I am a co-founder. The film is part of a wider project of preserving the Italian history of the North End, from personal stories of the people who lived there to new archival research on key historical events.

I want to share some of this history with you in my monthly column. I plan to write about better and lesser known historical events, talk about changes in and to the North End, past and present, highlight Italian and Italian-American organizations, and sometimes talk about people who helped make the neighborhood the wonderful place it was. In some columns, I might describe an event tied to a current date; in others, I might report on new research or studies, or perhaps older research that is not well known. Whatever the topic, I hope to bring you something interesting about the North End, that Italian village on the East Coast of the United States.

James Pasto – jpasto@bu.edu

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.

11 comments

  1. Carol {Giampaolo} Gillis

    Thanks James, for a look back at my childhood also. I’m was born a raised in the North End on Foster St. My mother Rose used to put up the swings in the Foster St playground. Your article was so well written. It was exactly how it was for me. I have so many fond memories. I moved to Braintree to raise my kids in the country so they would have grass under their feet when they played. But I feel they missed out in the closeness we had , as you said, growing up with Aunts, Uncles & paesani all around us. Thank you again…Carol

    • Hi Carol,

      Thank you as well. I grew up on Charter Street and sometimes played on Foster and in the Foster St. playground. It is too bad that we had to trade the grass for the closeness. At least your children were lucky to have you. Merry Christmas and Happy New year.

      Jim

  2. Great article! I was born in 1950 and raised on Endicott St and played in the “Gassie”. Great memories for sure! You mentioned the Passacantilli’s, well I frequented the Blue Front on Hanover St and was friends with all the brothers. I was transferred to Ft Laudedale 19 years ago by my company who I still work for. Yeah I like the term “gravy”; people down here call it “sauce” …uh uh. My sister is here as well and we try to mantain our proud culture and heritage. I will always be thankful for the street education acquired in the North End as well as the academic education.
    Thanks for reading….JRR

  3. Hi James, I was born & brought up on Endicott St. in the building my father was born. I love my North End & I would never live anywhere else. I just picked up your magazine & I love it! Thank you & Happy New Year.

  4. Frank Mazzarella

    James I really enjoyed the article. I was born in 1953 in Orient Heights while most of my family lived in the North End and the West End. We eventually moved into the West End but were thrown out by the City and we went West to Leominster, MA. It was hard for my father to leave the West End and all of his friends and family behind but their homes were being torn down and there was no alternative. So, when I read about the way you kids grew up in the North End I realize that you are describing the way my brothers and I would have lived if the City of Boston had not interfered with our living. My Dad never got over it, he was a fish out of water and he needed that corner, that stoop, those friends of his childhood. Anyway I cannot get enough of your kind of reminiscing, thank you.

    • Dear Frank,

      Thanks for your note. What they did to the West End was a real tragedy. It is gone, but not forgotten. And if they had not torn it down they would have had another neighborhood like the North End today. There is a West End museum near North Station. I have not been there but I know some of the guys who run it. Have you been there?

      Best wishes,

      Jim

  5. Jeffrey Harriman

    Dear James,

    I moved to Boston in mid 1982 after I got out of the USAF, without knowing a soul there. The North End, holds fond memories of my 20’s, and the wonderful people from that area. As a young cook, I learned the simple pleasures of Italian cuisine from the locals at Mike’s, various salumerias, bread from Alfredo Aiello’s, Villa Napoli, and a host of other places. I remember vividly, the kindness and generosity shown to this non Italian kid from New Hampshire. More specifically, their advice on how to eat well with very little money, kept me alive and well fed.

  6. Hi James,

    My mother grew up in the North End as well (Cooper Street and then Prince St) and that picture of J & N market is my Grandfather’s shop. That’s him with the cigar in his mouth behind the counter. I spent many Saturdays at the butcher shop. Thank you for posting that picture and for writing the article.

    Lisa

  7. Hi Jimmy,

    That brings back old times in the North End with your grandmother and grandfather, aunts and mother and father. Your father was one of the best guys I ever met and he came from East Boston. I’m not too good at this computer, somebody is typing it for me. I’ll learn someday, I’ll have to take a class at BU!

    Nice job!

    Thank you,
    Stacy

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