Where to Eat & Drink in the North End

By Scott Kearnan  |  July 30, 2014
Credit: Mike Diskin

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This weekend marks the 100th annual Saint Agrippina feast, one of many weekend celebrations that take place in the largely Italian-American neighborhood over the summer. To mark the centennial, it's been expanded to a four-day festival, which means more time to check out the area's best dining options. Yet the North End might be one of Boston's most misunderstood neighborhoods. Some consider it an epicenter of old-world gems; to others, it's a tourist trap. When night falls, the mobbed streets and long lines for small dining rooms can be a turn-off to some; others regard that same festiveness as part of its overall appeal. It's hard to narrow down the dozens of restaurants in a particularly polarizing 'hood, but we've cherry-picked favorites that represent the best of all worlds: the old, the new, the under-the-radar and the unabashed. 

Carmen. Cozy and contemporary, Carmen is a romantic restaurant that manages to stand out in a sea of red-sauce-slinging eateries that, on the surface, might seem to be indistinguishable. Maybe it's the moderately priced wine list getting to our head, but there's something about the high-level service and excellent, unostentatious dishes that make Carmen love at first (or nightly) sight. (33 North Square; 617-742-6421)

Gennaro's Five North Square. Chef Marisa Iocco, often billed as Boston's only Italian-born female chef, is the kind of talented toque who flies under the radar of many casual food-scene followers. She's not the type you'll find hamming it up for photo shoots; she's too busy in the kitchen, where she's helped transform then-new restaurants (like Bricco, Mare and Umbria) into must-try destinations. Seek her out now at Gennaro's; she's just as quietly inspired as ever. (5 North Square; 617-720-1050)

Giacomo's. If you don't like lines, the North End might not be your neighborhood. There are lots of small, no-reservations spots: like Giacomo's, which scores lines down the block nightly. If you ask us, it earns the hype — even with a South End sister restaurant that does take reservations. But it's not a true North End trip until you've split a nip with a stranger on a chilly night in line. When it comes to local color, that type of experience is absolutely authentic. (355 Hanover St.; 617-523-9026)

Neptune Oyster. Like some treasured catch, Neptune's reputation is nearly legacy. It took the top spot in our 2014 Zagat Boston Restaurants Survey, which reflected ratings for 1,207 restaurants throughout the Hub. And chef Michael Serpa's (pictured) skills earned him a place on our 30 Under 30 list of talented young toques. At the heart of its appeal: absolutely fantastic seafood that includes, whether served hot with butter or cold with mayo, one of the best lobster rolls in the city.  (63 Salem St.; 617-742-3474)

Ristorante Fiore. Homespun Italian in the North End? You can't toss a rigatoni without hitting a spot that offers that. But a romantic roof deck, with heat and retractable awnings for keeping chill and drizzle at bay? This is the only one, and it's every bit as delicious as it sounds. (250 Hanover St.; 617-371-1176)

Parla. Opened in April, this North End newcomer is a welcome hideaway for hipper crowds: those who prefer its "Italian speakeasy" concept to the "Italian grandmother" decor that pervades many of the other neighborhood restaurants. Besides the charming, offbeat vibe, a strong beverage program (which includes a secret cocktail menu) makes this a major dining draw. For a closer look at what to order and expect, check out our Cheat Sheet(230 Hanover St.; 617-367-2824)

Prezza. Take the heart and soul of nonna's cooking, and add the skill and technique of a pro chef. You get Prezza, Anthony Caturano's North End gem that never disappoints. It's named for the Italian village where his grandmother Elena grew up, and many of the old-world recipes were inspired by her "gravy Sundays" meals. Caturano brings a true chef's touch; his stellar gnocchi Bolognese alone is worth the visit. (24 Fleet St.; 617-227-1577)

Quattro. Restaurateur Frank DePasquale is a local legend: the hospitality czar behind Bricco, Mare and several other spots within and outside of the North End. But we'll reserve a special shout-out for his most recent full-service restaurant, which opened two years ago: a contemporary entry that places its emphasis on brick-oven pizza and rotisserie meats. (264 Hanover St.; 617-720-0444) 

​Strega Ristorante. While we're on the subject of big-shot impresarios, Nick Varano is no slouch. Over the years, his Varano Group has expanded to include the harborside hot spot Strega Waterfront, North End wine bar Nico Ristorante and two steakhouses: suburban outpost Strega Prime and the upcoming Strip by Strega in Park Square. But it all started here, when over a decade ago the former car salesman took his mother's sauce recipe and opened this North End originator of what is now a one-man brand. (379 Hanover St.; 617-523-8481)

Taranta. Chef Jose Duarte's Peruvian-Italian fusion is certainly unique to the neighborhood. (And boy, does it ever work well. Especially standout is his seafood, which includes regularly changing preparations of the jungle fish Amazone Paiche.) But he's earned a nod as one of Boston's Most Innovative Restaurants for a another reason: QR codes that he often draws on plates with squid ink. Scanned with a smartphone, they send diners to sites that help them trace the sourcing of the dish's ingredients, try their hand at its recipe or watch YouTube videos that educate on issues of sustainability. (210 Hanover St.; 617-720-0052)

​Trattoria Di Monica. Alongside Neptune Oyster, surveyors have made this one of the North End's highest-rated restaurants. (Also in that elite group is its sister Vinoteca.) It's small but mighty, with candlelit brick walls and a reasonably priced menu with offerings that sound straightforward — but have surprising sophistication for the plate and palate. (67 Prince St.; 617-720-5472)

Tresca. No doubt about it: there's top-notch Italian to be had at this upscale restaurant co-owned by Olympian and Boston Bruins legend Ray Bourque. But there's one particularly unique aspect that also makes it one of Boston's Best Date Restaurants: a Hanover Street-side balcony with a single table, perfect for — well, whatever romantic gesture one might propose. (233 Hanover St.; 617-742-8240) 

Ward 8. Opened over the winter, Ward 8 is on the North End/West End borderline, but it's named for the North End voting district that gave a 19th-century Boston politician his victory, thus inspiring the celebratory creation of the eponymous whiskey cocktail. You can certainly still sip a Ward 8 here, along with plenty of other elixirs from Eastern Standard alum Mike Wyatt. Meanwhile Kenny Schweizer, formerly of Meritage, offers sophisticated American fare in the gastropub vein, drawing thirtysomething after-work crowds that want a little less pasta and red sauce, a little more duck wing and maple chile sauce. For a closer look at the food and drink, here's our Cheat Sheet.  (90 N. Washington St.; 617-823-4478)