Visual appetizers from the North End Market Tour, which explores Boston’s Little Italy with visits to such landmarks as Bricco Salumeria, Polcari’s Coffee, Monica’s Pasta Shop, and—for dessert—Maria’s Pastry Shop.Photo Credit : Adam DeTour
I’m sitting at a long wooden table in the rustic brick-walled dining room of New Haven’s Skappo restaurant with 22 strangers, belting out “La Bella Polenta,” a rousing Italian folk song that celebrates the humble cornmeal dish. We are locals and tourists, recent graduates and retirees, and we’re on the fourth stop of our Taste of New Haven culinary walking tour.
I’ve come here to dive deep into the city’s food scene, and halfway through the tour it’s clear that I’ve found the perfect vehicle for discovery. The concept is simple and delicious: In the course of a few hours, a guide introduces local fare through on-foot visits to a variety of food establishments, while also showcasing history, architecture, culture, and lore.
Inspired, I spend the next several months taking tours all over New England, ranging from the mom-and-pop shops of Boston’s North End to sustainability-minded bistros in Portland, Maine. The following represent five of my favorite tours, all of which are open to the public. And if you can’t take one of these tours yourself, we’ve included some recipes to bring their flavors into your own kitchen.
Eight of us, including a couple from Wales and a local woman celebrating her 50th birthday with friends, are crowded into Bricco Salumeria, an old-world Italian deli and pasta shop in Boston’s North End, ogling fragrant trays of antipasti and fresh pasta. Here, in the city’s oldest neighborhood, it feels as if we’ve struck culinary gold.
On her tour, Italian food expert Michele Topor introduces guests to the shops and markets that uphold the traditions of the Italian immigrants who settled here in the early 1900s. “It’s not a neighborhood of high-rise buildings,” says Topor, who has lived in the North End since 1970. “It has soul, vibrancy, and warmth.”
In a time of grab-and-go food, every one of our stops—from Polcari’s Coffee, chockablock with Italian products, to the cannoli mecca Maria’s Pastry Shop—is like a trip to the old country. When a plate of mozzarella appears in front of us at Bricco, it becomes a communion of sorts. The freshly made cheese is warm and creamy, a distillation of fresh milk and a revelation to us all.
Michele Topor’s Boston Food Tours: 888-774-8303; bostonfoodtours.com
Because my Italian husband grew up in New Haven’s Wooster Square, and my father-in-law still lives just steps away from the best brick-oven apizza, I thought I knew this city’s food scene well. But on his On 9 Tour of the Ninth Square Historic District, Colin Caplan—author, architect, and native son—shows me what I’ve been missing.
Reflecting the Elm City’s diverse population, the tour’s stops include G Café Bakery for German bread and pastries, Tikkaway Grill for savory bowls of Indian food, and Skappo, where (in addition to voicing our love for “La Bella Polenta”) we learn that New Haven has the largest population of Italian Americans per capita of any U.S. metro area. The Italian-ness of the city is important to the food scene, according to Caplan. “When your Italian grandma’s home cooking is delicious,” he says, “the restaurants have to be worth the price.”
Caplan points to another influence, too: the thousands of Yale University students and scholars from around the world, who bring a knowledge and expectation that sets a high bar. “They are the nayers and yayers of the downtown restaurants,” he says.
At Skappo, sitting down to plates of pesto basilico, fresh bread, and wine, we are all yayers.
Taste of New Haven: 888-975-8664; tasteofnewhaven.com
We start our tour with generous portions of crisp, beer-battered fish and fries at Dune Brothers, a cherry-red shack with outdoor picnic-table seating. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in a seaside tourist town, not in a bustling capital. But after New England natives Jason Hegedus and Nicholas Gillespie recognized that the Providence food scene was taking off, they opened their sustainably sourced seafood shack in 2017 in the arts and culture district known as Downcity.
Paula Silva, founder of Rhode Island Red Food Tours, launched her Downcity tour in 2015. “Four years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to run one in this neighborhood,” says Silva, “but all of a sudden there’s a high concentration of great places to eat.”
Our tour visits six spots, including Ellie’s Bakery, where we savor crostini with rare roast beef, bourbon aioli, and peach compote. Later we’ll stop at the bakery’s fine-dining sister restaurant, Gracie’s, for dessert: a ginger blondie with matcha Chantilly, shoyu caramel, and sesame ice cream.
Alane Spinney, senior barista at Ellie’s, points to the nearby College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University as a driver of Providence’s thriving and eclectic food scene. “Young culinarians from around the world—India, Canada, Barbados—incorporate their foodways into ours,” she says. “They’re adapting their recipes to what’s seasonally available here.” Which means that this small city is home to a world of flavor.
Rhode Island Red Food Tours: 866-736-6343; rhodeislandredfoodtours.com
At Scales, a restaurant in Portland’s Old Port, our tour group is bent over bowls of Bangs Island mussels perfumed with shallots, garlic, and thyme as executive chef Fred Elliott explains how Maine’s cold, oxygen-rich waters and jagged coastline create the conditions for excellent seafood. By way of agreement, we are using slices of French bread to sop up every last drop of buttery golden broth.
A bona fide dining mecca, Portland is home to more than 400 restaurants that not only serve the city’s 67,000 residents but also attract visitors from around the globe. “We have a wide array of food choices here,” says our guide, Bryce Hach, cofounder of Maine Food for Thought Tours, “so what we put on our plate is a reflection of our values.” Leading us to six standout restaurants that feature local, sustainably sourced ingredients, Hach shares his deep knowledge of Maine’s complex food system at each stop. “We want our guests to walk away with a full belly and a fuller understanding about where our food comes from.”
Our tour wraps up at Piccolo, an intimate Italian restaurant where pastry chef and co-owner Ilma Lopez presents us with dessert-size Mason jars of fresh Maine blueberries topped with vanilla cake and mascarpone mousse. With such a short growing season in the state, restaurants are constantly shifting their menus—another lure for visitors with curious palates.
Maine Food for Thought: 207-619-2075; mainefoodforthought.com
With one of the nation’s highest concentrations of eateries per capita, Portsmouth is a food lover’s town. “There are more restaurant seats here than there are residents,” jokes our guide, Colleen Westcott, cofounder of the tour company Portsmouth Eats. “What makes Portsmouth special is that the chefs, farms, and restaurants work together to support each other in a collaborative way.”
The Best of Portsmouth Tour takes us through six top-rated restaurants in this port city of 21,000, and each place we visit feels intimate and welcoming. Many, like the Library—originally the Rockingham, where both George Washington and John F. Kennedy dined—also hum with the vibrant history of this onetime shipbuilding hub.
Our last stop, the River House, finds us seated at high tables overlooking the Piscataqua, the swiftest navigable river in North America. Pleasure boats move in and out of the expansive harbor, and the air smells briny and alive. As we dip into bowls of their award-winning seafood chowder, my husband and I exchange a nod: The creamy broth brimming with fresh haddock and shellfish tastes just like summer by the sea.
Portsmouth Eats: 603-571-3287; portsmouth-eats.com