Have Americans destroyed Italian cuisine? Do the Italians hate us for it? Do I even know what Italian food is? Would bringing an Italian to Little Italy in Boston be carnage?
My first experience with Italian food came in the form of boxed Barilla spaghetti. My dad meticulously listed grocery items on yellow Post-it notes and carefully attached them to our fridge door. One of them is still there, a relic from the late 90s, the paper curling with age at the edges.
Tomato sauce noodle, it says, in his tiny but sure English handwriting. And tomato sauce noodles we had – fettucine, my favorite pasta shape at the time, boiled a few minutes past al dente because my daddy liked his pasta the same texture as Chinese wheat noodles, and then with half a jar of Prego ragu, microwaved on high for 4 minutes, dumped unceremoniously over the top. I always asked for seconds. Sometimes thirds.
I even enjoyed Olive Garden when I went for the first time with my high school Mock Trial team to celebrate making it to State Finals. I wasn’t (and still am not) embarrassed to enjoy Olive Garden for what it is- Its décor decidedly dated, its faux-Italian authenticity so resolute in its own non-identity that it can’t help but give you comfort. It gives you the familiarity of an imagined Old World charm that doesn’t actually exist.
I didn’t actually realize that, well, Italians weren’t really eating Olive Garden until I was much older. After watching Buzzfeed’s series of *actual* Italian people eating Italian food in America, my whole love of Italian food was shaken. Did I even know what Italian food was? Who am I? Am I here? What is the meaning of life? Did I destroy Italian food?
I decided to test this hypothesis (“Americans destroyed Italian cuisine”) on a very special real-life Italian person in my life.
Giovanni took me on a whirlwind of a trip to Italy in October of 2018, which was the stuff of every far-fetched scene in Eat, Pray, Love, and Under the Tuscan Sun.
Every tired trope of these Italian fantasies came to life – in the form of adrenaline-filled Vespa rides through Rome’s cobbled streets, where I shrieked as my hair whipped around my helmeted head, clutching G’s sturdy torso in sheer fear and delight. Midnight visits to beaches in Ancona, where the moon shone like a white orb across a black sea, and stars innumerable twinkled above our faces. We ate plates and plates of just al-dente pasta – cacio e pepe in Rome and mussels on Lake Garda, all washed down in liters of wine at every meal.
With all of this living in his memory and mine, I took Giovanni to Little Italy in Boston. This was part of a larger Boston tour. The name “Little Italy” is a hark back to an influx of Italian migrants, who faced anti-Italian sentiment and discrimination from bursts of settlement during the 19th century all the way up until 1930, when Italians made up 99.9% of the neighborhood’s population.
Today, Little Italy in Boston is lined with general stores and salumerias and cheese shops, and Italian restaurants every 10 meters.
I’d already explained to G that what he could expect wasn’t the same type of Italian food that we’d relished in Italy. G, always the good sport, told me smilingly that he already knew Americans could eat meatballs on top of spaghetti, and he wasn’t going to throw a fit because of it.
Neptune Oyster: A Seafood Restaurant and a Little Italy Boston Institution
First stop: Neptune Oyster.
Neptune Oyster is one of my favorite restaurants in Little Italy Boston. I love everything about it. I love the marble bar. I love the cramped tables. I love the single aisle running the length of the space, where servers squeeze in between the bar and the chairs. I even love the long lines. Granted, this is probably because I have been living in Asia, where waiting in line for food is basically a national sport. I once waited nearly 3 hours to have gyoza in Kyoto. It isn’t one of my prouder moments, but the wait was a sunk cost. I got to have beer while waiting. You choose your battles.
My excitement at eating here was somewhat deflated when I asked a server a question that I’d been rehearsing for months. “Can I have half a cold lobster roll and half a hot lobster roll?” This was very important to me. The hot lobster roll at Neptune Oyster is the platonic ideal. It comes on a toasted bun. There’s clarified butter covering every inch. I wanted to add that I’d been planning on eating this for months, damn it, and I didn’t even live here anymore. Look at the guest I brought with me!
“We may never get a chance to eat here ever again!” I wanted to shout. Do you want that on your conscience?
I already knew the answer before she replied. The corners of her lips turned up in a wry smile. Nice try, they seemed to say. “No. I’m sorry,” with a look that said, Don’t try it.
So I didn’t. Instead, I tried to make peace with the fact that I’d already eaten their glorious hot lobster roll twice before, and that today was the day that I’d eat the cold one.
It was delicious, by the way. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a New England lobster roll (a real one, made with actual lobster meat), but they’re a coastal specialty – something eat when you’re out with your family by the beach. Something you get from the seafood hut a few feet away from the beachline, when the air smells like salt and sand and when . I never had those trays of fried seafood because my parents wouldn’t let me, but the blissed out luxury of having huge bites of shellfish completely unadulterated by shell or bone, was never lost on me.
After some debate, G also decided that he wanted the spaghettini, a Monday special at Neptune Oyster.
I’m suspicious of spaghettini in the same way that I’m suspicious of spaghetti, and also the same way that I’m suspicious of capellini (angel hair pasta). It’s just too thin. It’s decidedly an inferior pasta shape. Why go to the trouble of boiling a pasta that has about a 99.9999 chance of being overcooked? Why not just prepare one that has a much more satisfying chew factor? Like rigatoni. Or even fettucine.
I became even more suspicious when it arrived. I think this suspicion spread to G, albeit for a different reason.
“There’s – there’s cheese on it,” he said politely. Yes, dear. There’s cheese on it. I’ll bet his left eye was actually twitching in horror, but because he has proper manners and his mamma raised him right, that was all the speech he could muster.
Here’s the problem, though: In Italy, you do not put cheese on seafood. It is like, a cardinal sin. So that lobster mac-n-cheese you love so much? An Italian nonna is twitching in her grave. Somewhere.
But G is a selective rule breaker.
Once, when we were in his hometown in Italy, I watched him deftly cut the long strands of pasta on his plate with short choppy strokes, with total unconcern. I’d seen him do this before, so it was really business as usual. But this particular meal was a family meal. I watched with bated breath to see how his family would react. Barely missing a beat, G’s mother, after taking a moment to collect herself, chided him in rapid-fire Italian. Aha! The Internet is right. Italians aren’t supposed to cut their pasta, but this Italian does.
But food rules can be broken, right? I eat pizza with a knife and fork sometimes. I’ve just recently started mixing wasabi into soy sauce again, despite eschewing this practice for years because the Internet told me it was wrong. SOME OF YOU PROBABLY EVEN ORDER YOUR STEAKS WELL-DONE, you barbarians.
Like last time, I watched him carefully to see how he bore witness to this particular broken rule, waiting for a snark to escape his lips.
It never came. He shrugged and stabbed his fork in the lobstery mass, twirled it once, and brought the mass of slippery cheesy strands and lobster meat, steaming at the top and dripping with broth, to his mouth.
I then turned my attention to my own lobster roll: just as luxurious as I’d imagined it would be, served on a toasted white bun. Enormous chunks of lobster were lightly dressed with mayonnaise, which spilled unceremoniously out of the roll and onto my plate. Alternating bites of that and the lobster spaghettini, not to mention the oysters we’d slurped at the start of the meal, sent us into a shellfish food coma that even the most avid crustacean lover couldn’t shake off.
Even though I’d wanted to at least entertain the idea of heading to Mike’s Pastry, a total icon in Little Italy in Boston, for a cannoli (I know the singular is “cannolo”!), one look at G’s face told me it was a bad idea. Sometimes, too much lobster is just too much lobster.
Carmelina’s: People Are Obsessed With This Restaurant On the Internet
Because my desire for Italian food was still unquenched (a lobster roll does not an Italian meal make), and Carmelina’s remains an red-sauce stalwart of the area, I’d made reservations an entire month in advance.
“People say this place is their favorite restaurant of all time,” I said to G, waving my phone with Carmelina’s Yelp page open under his nose. “Including restaurants in Italy.” (I’m not kidding. Go and check).
Because G is polite and mostly lets me have my way (I’m a pushy arguer, especially when it comes to food), instead of immediately saying “Please. These people don’t know Italian food,” like he probably should have, he instead said, “Wow.” I COULD HEAR THE SKEPTICISM IN YOUR BREATH, G.
So then we returned to Little Italy in Boston again at the end of the week, after we’d already gone to New York for 24 hours (and yet somehow managed to visit at least 8 different restaurants).
Carmelina’s was already full during a Friday lunch, a feat I thought impossible.
“Why are there so many people here? Don’t they have work?” I whispered to G. The answer became clear very soon, as I watched a couple of Korean girls leave the two-top behind us, and were immediately replaced by a Japanese couple. A group of American friends laughed at the table next to them, steam rising from their plates. No locals are having a white tablecloth sit down on Friday. Not if they have somewhere to be.
The first dish was the meatballs. It’s really hard to fuck meatballs up. When a meatball is bad, it’s still sort of good. I feel like they’re kind of like pizza in that way. I know this from watching too many episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and watched our him shout that meatballs should not be boiled in a vat of red sauce, but rather seared in the pan until it develops a crust, and then finished in the sauce, you donkey. Giovanni carefully divided each meatball into halves in his exacting way.
“The meatballs are good,” he said.
I let out an internal sigh of relief. The meatballs are good! He said that! Completely unsolicited! And, of course, they were.
I can’t exactly explain why, but my desire to prove to this man that there was decent Italian food to be found outside of Italy, and especially in my hometown, was strong. It was probably unwarranted, because the poor guy had time and time again told me that there were plenty of good Italian food outside his country, and could even attest to the undeniable quality of a Neopolitan pizza (topped with maguro, raw tuna, no less!) that we’d had in Tokyo the previous year.
None of this daunted me and my quest to prove to him (but maybe more to myself?) that food here could be good, that this rendition of pasta and meatballs, could be just as delicious as Giovanni’s mother’s homemade pasta and veal cutlets.
There was an open kitchen, so we snapped photos of the flames under the stove and watched each dish come out carefully.
The next dish, a shareable Penne Gorgonzola, came out as beautifully and photogenically as any dish on Food and Wine magazine. It was tinged an attractive pinky-orange – the color of a well-done vodka sauce. And I thought it was pretty freaking good, man. It was al dente. The sauce clung to each tube and each ridge well. There was just enough gorgonzola to give the dish a subtle nutty twang, but not enough for it to kick you in the face with Wow I’m really eating something with blue fucking cheese.
But what I thought didn’t matter. It only mattered what G thought.
The first thing he pointed out was that the Penne Gorgonzola did not actually have penne. “It looks like rigatoni,” he said, taking his first bite. As he chewed thoughtfully, I had another menu, and then again at the pasta. He was right. It did not look like penne.
He then declared it to be good. “But better than restaurants in Italy good? Nuh-uh.” I meditated on the wisdom of overhyping our own expectations of Carmelina’s. I vowed to next time describe restaurants as only okay (especially when they were in Little Italy in Boston), so that the verdict would inevitably come out to be good.
And then something else happened. A mammoth dish of what looked like a mass of meat, topped with what resembled a tub of whipped cream, with a side of risotto, was placed on the counter. The servers hoisted it onto their arms, struggled, and carried it to a couple sitting next to us.
The reaction this time was palpably different.
“What is that???” G said, open-mouthed.
I knew exactly what that thing was. It was the dish called Sunday Macaroni on the menu, which, according to the menu, contains meatballs, sulmona sausage, and beef rib in a savory tomato sauce, dollop of whipped ricotta. It costs $29 USD and is served every day.
The rule-breaking Italian had finally caved. He watched it silently, as if in a trance. He counted each hulking slice of beef. He stared at the “macaroni,” which, of course, wasn’t actually macaroni (looks like rigatoni to me!). His eyes roved slowly over to the veritable ladle of ricotta cheese crowning the mountaintop.
The male part of the couple starting spooning risotto on the side of his meat.
“Oh no. Oh no.” G put his head in his hands. “Mamma mia.”
I rocked back in forth silently in laughter. “The horror!” I said as the poor boy sitting next to G unwittingly dug into his beef rib, slathering ricotta enthusiastically on the meat.
My sip of wine nearly spurted out of my nostrils. G’s catastrophic alarm at his cuisine being destroyed was so genuine that I made a secret note to myself to get him to try that dish someday.
Look. I’m sure the Sunday Macaroni is delicious. I am not disputing that. I am, however, disputing whether food rules can actually be broken, because, well, I’m not sure he’s recovered since that day.
When he finally came to, he looked at me gravely. “Unless it’s ragu,” he spluttered, “Meat and pasta do not go together.”
Mike’s Pastry: The Iconic Local Favorite that I’m Beginning to Question
“You can’t leave without going to Mike’s,” I said.
Even though in my head, Modern Pastry was probably the better call for a fresh cannolo. I just have a real soft spot for genuinely old tourist traps. I love them. I can’t help it. I love them the way I love McDonald’s fries and supermarket white bread.
Mike’s Pastry has been in operation since 1946 and has become a longtime and well-loved staple of Boston food lovers. The boxes that they pack their goods in is now a recognizable trademark of Boston (especially Little Italy Boston) – and whether that box holds cannoli or cookies or biscotti doesn’t matter. Everything is delicious.
It also looks like this on the inside.
There are a million people working behind the counter, yelling at you to step up and place your order. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. If they’re yelling at you, and you make eye contact, you better just step up. Lining the walls near the ceilings are superimposed photos of each flavour of cannoli that they sell – ranging from stracciatella to pistachio to Oreo.
In the glass cases are not only cannoli, but enormous chocolate cakes, Italian cookies of every variety, and giant pastries of every type imaginable.
Remember that Italian nonna we mentioned would be rolling in her grave when we visited Neptune Oyster? Yeah. Imma just say this: oreo cannoli.
G loves pistachio, so we shared one ($3.50 USD) – a perfectly formed fried cannolo shell piped with thick ricotta. The ends were dusted with crushed pistachio nuts. Although the shell of the cannolo was staler tasting than I’d remembered, biting into this little treat reminded me of the first time I brought home my own Mike’s Pastry box, fresh from Little Italy in Boston, and how much I loved those Oreo cannoli back then.
After Mike’s, we did a much-needed stroll to psychologically offset the meal we’d eaten. He was fascinated by this sign, which pointed to a handful of well-known Italian cities and towns in all different directions.
“What’s Abruzzi?” he asked, with a bewildered smile. “It’s a little confusing, isn’t it? I think it should be Abruzzo.”
The sign is inaccurate, City of Boston!
And it was in that moment, that the strange and weird pressure I’d put on myself about this area being Italian enough was totally shed. I shrugged and laughed. If being here in this little neighbourhood, Little Italy Boston, the oldest residential area in the city, successfully proved that Italy doesn’t always translate perfect overseas – well, it really didn’t matter.
I watched G speak in Italian to shop owners of generations-old general stores, with Italian goods packed into their shelves and loaves of bread hanging out in the windows. And they’d answered, without missing a beat, right back.
Despite being in Boston, it was a little bit like being back in Italy.
I giggled when we watched a heavyset man with more oil slick in his hair than Johnny Cash walk into a café where we were sharing a bad gelato. He wore a loose fitting suit and looked like he’d walked straight out of The Godfather.
This was not lost on G, who nudged me and whispered, “Oh my God, he’s mafia.” We stared and stared. G, who has had his share of mafia jokes directed his way whenever he mentions that he’s from Italy, was just as fascinated as I was.
“Do people look like that in Italy at all?” IT WAS A GENUINE QUESTION, PEOPLE.
“No,” he said, sneaking another look. “At least, not where I’m from. Maybe in some really niche regions in the south. Not sure.”
And as I sipped on my espresso, I snuck another bite of his terribly artificial pistachio gelato. Maybe G hadn’t thought everything was amazing here.
But still, just being here was enough.
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