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Getting a taste of Italy on a trip to Boston

All roads lead to Italy from Hanover Street in Boston's North End.
All roads lead to Italy from Hanover Street in Boston's North End. (Alan Behr / TNS)

A clear sky stretched over Boston Harbor like a taut, blue canvas, the sea air warming under the midday sun. The water was a smooth highway through which our water taxi skimmed toward moored sailboats. A white schooner sailed in fine trim off our port bow.

“That’s what I want next,” said George Morton as he pointed out the schooner. Gray-haired and convivial, Captain George, as he prefers to be known, had picked me up from the dock at the end of the No. 66 bus — a free shuttle from Logan Airport — and was taking me to my hotel, the Battery Wharf.

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“In a few more years, I hope to have the money,” said Captain George, pointing to more sailboats moored in the harbor. “That’s sailing as I know it.”

He dropped off a couple at the waterfront Marriott and next pulled up to the dock at the Battery Wharf and I rolled my suitcases to the front desk. I had come again for the international legal conference I attend annually with 11,000 of my dearest colleagues. Boston was the location this year, and as with meetings past, I avoided the large hotels near the convention venue as diligently as I would miss an opportunity to contract influenza.

Large conferences offer excursions, and along with about two dozen others, I chose whale watching. We boarded a catamaran that the operator, Boston Harbor Cruises, boasts can do close to 35 knots — about the pace of a destroyer. We were soon pitching and slamming at high speed into undulating waves, at last arriving at Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary.

Children reenact the Boston Tea Party on a replica of the brig Beaver at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.
Children reenact the Boston Tea Party on a replica of the brig Beaver at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. (Alan Behr / TNS)

The amplified voice of the youthful onboard marine conservationist filled the main cabin with good cheer for aquatic mammals everywhere. Soon, four whales took turns bobbing close enough to the surface of a rough, rain-splattered sea to offer glimpses of flukes, massive pectoral fins that rose from the depths like the trident of Neptune and then slapped the petulant waves, and blowholes that shot mist into the air. The whales had cute names such as Spoon and Bungie. Passengers were awed until about 40% became visibly, painfully seasick. After what seemed like a voyage of 40 days, the captain turned the vessel back toward port.

As when, in the past, things were not going as they should have, there seemed only one logical choice to make it right: head to Italy. It was no accident that I had chosen the Battery Wharf. It is the only luxury hotel on Boston’s North End, which is to say, a neighborhood known as Italian and therefore as one splendid place to find a good meal — or several good meals, as the days wore on.

It started at Bricco, on the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge. The lights were low but not suspiciously funereal, and the culinary craftsmanship crested just to the edge of gourmet quality, making it quite an impressive value. My dining companion started with a burrata served with arugula, roasted red peppers and asparagus. My main course was a marinated half-chicken roasted “under the brick” — meaning that a brick or other heavy weight presses the meat flat as it roasts. The result here was aromatic and agreeably moist.

That was followed the next day, again with a colleague, by lunch at Florentine Caffe, which opens onto Hanover Street, which seemed to have as many Italian restaurants as the Black Forest has trees. After glasses of Prosecco, my colleague enjoyed the parmigiana di melanzane (an eggplant dish) and I had a classic veal Marsala.

Were I left to my own predilections, I would continue my pattern, set earlier in life, of viewing pastries as the sixth main food group. My internal medicine physician and my cardiologist, Dr. No Fun, have put the kibosh on that pleasure (and many others), but the North End gives license for judicious exceptions.

A modern pastry shop counter on Hanover Street in Boston's North End.
A modern pastry shop counter on Hanover Street in Boston's North End. (Alan Behr / TNS)

Two pastry shops face each other from across Hanover Street like gladiators stepping into the Colosseum, preparing to battle to the death over which makes the best cannoli. Modern Pastry is considered the choice of locals. My pick here were Italian macaroons, which were large and quite complex in flavor. Mike’s Pastry is said to be favored by visitors. My demi-assortment of plain and almond biscotti were finely done and quickly consumed.

As with so much of Boston, the North End gives easy access to national treasures. I was able to walk to the Charlestown Navy Yard. Resting in dock is the U.S.S. Constitution, the 18th-century man-of-war that is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat. The crew, who wear period uniforms but are actually U.S. Navy regulars, give a fun and educational tour.

Just off Hanover Street is the Old North Church, which, like the Constitution, is on Boston’s Freedom Trail (a route leading through 16 important Revolutionary War locations). The church is where Paul Revere hung his lanterns to warn of the approach of the British. I was first taken there as a small boy, when the guide let me hold one of the period lanterns then on display. The church now charges a healthy admission fee, but included in the price is a small adjunct building, Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, where a bearded, engaging man in period costume took a room full of us through the steps of making 18th-century liquid chocolate.

Samples are handed out during a demonstration of traditional liquid chocolate making at Captain Jackson's Historic Chocolate Shop in Boston.
Samples are handed out during a demonstration of traditional liquid chocolate making at Captain Jackson's Historic Chocolate Shop in Boston. (Alan Behr / TNS)

I had a quiet moment at Abigail’s Tea Room, in the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, sipping on Bohea, a Chinese tea that had been a favorite in the 13 Colonies until, in 1773, the Boston Tea Party turned the citizens of the nascent U.S.A. into coffee drinkers. Outside, schoolchildren reenacted the event aboard a docked replica of the brig Beaver, one of the ships that was prematurely unloaded on that famous night.

The grand finale of our legal conference was at the pleasingly well-curated Museum of Science, where a couple dressed as boogying robots encouraged dour lawyers to get onto the dance floor and show what they’ve got; that proved to be not all that much, but there is ever honor in the effort.

Except for a couple obligatory trips to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for committee meetings and such, I finished the conference as I like to do — by sitting in the lobby of a fine hotel, knocking back cocktails and letting my colleagues, who say they like my taste in accommodations, come to visit me. The Battery Wharf (and its lobby bar) proved up to the task.

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