La Dolce Vita…Trade Brings Italy’s Delicacies to the North End of Boston

Ethnic neighborhoods across the United States – from Little Havana in Miami to San Francisco’s Chinatown – allow us to experience elements of a culture and cuisine without needing to break out a passport. The North End is known as Boston’s Italian enclave, whose narrow streets teem with Italian restaurants, pastry shops, and specialty stores, and where summer brings a string of religious feasts and processions.

The one-square mile neighborhood, the oldest in Boston, has attracted waves of immigrants over the centuries, from Irish to Eastern European. However, the Italians were to become the most prominent North End residents of the twentieth century. Italian immigration heated up in the 1880s and, by 1920, Italian immigrants and their children made up about 90 percent of the population, in a neighborhood that had one of the highest population densities on the planet.

By 2015, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, only 35 percent of North End residents reported Italian ancestry. That number may be even lower today, but the ethnic character of the North End is preserved through the many Italian restaurants and shops, making the neighborhood one of the biggest tourist attractions of the city.

From Naples to the North End

Step into a North End “salumeria,” an Italian delicatessen selling cured meats, cheese and other foodstuffs, and one might wonder about the journey that some salty prosciutto or a freshly cracked wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano may have taken. One small salumeria may work with hundreds of importers and distributors to supply them with Italian products, from truffles and olive oil to the soft wheat flour that is ideal for hand-made fresh pasta production. Some have developed their own private labels, working with Italian producers and directly importing custom products.

V. Cirace & Son, Inc., the North End-based fine wine and spirit retailer, has been family-owned since 1906. The company imports directly from some Italian wine producers, and also developed its own line of fruit liqueurs, Sogno di Sorrento, which it imports. Product ships from Italy via ocean and is distributed to Boston by truck. The top port of entry for U.S. imports from Italy is the Port of Newark, New Jersey. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2017, Italy had 32 percent of the U.S. wine import market, holding down the number one spot, with France second and New Zealand a distant third.

From about May to October, the majority of visitors to the North End are tourists, with multiple tour groups arriving daily to down some gnocchi or linguini or pick up a jar of imported Italian Nutella. While many of those are U.S. travelers, Boston’s international visitors count rose to 1.7 million in 2017, up from 475,000 in 1991, according to the Commerce Department. State-wide, the number one services export from Massachusetts to the world in 2016 was Travel Services, which includes services provided by hotels and restaurants, travel agencies, tour operators, and related services.

PDOs and PGIs, per favore

With American-made cheeses, hams, and pastas growing in quality (can you say Iowa-based prosciutto?), there are increasing numbers of replicas of classic Italian products. But be careful throwing around the term Prosciutto di Parma in a North End salumeria unless that’s what you mean.

Italy has the greatest number of food products with protected designation of origin (PDO) and protected geographical indication (PGI) labels in the 28-member European Union (EU), with 221 products protected. That figure includes two products – mozzarella and Neapolitan pizza – with the label “Traditional Specialty Guaranteed,” a more lenient designation with the emphasis on the ingredients or technique, rather than the place where it is made.

If you see a cheese with the words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled on the rind, that cheese was made in Bologna, Mantua, Modena, or Parma, Italy. European law classifies “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” as well as the translation “Parmesan,” as a PDO, ensuring the quality of labeled products and making them commercially valuable.

Famous signpost in the North End.

Photo credits: Leslie Griffin

To Include or Not Include Ag, That is the Question

While the United States does not yet have a trade agreement with the EU, the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) took provisional effect in September 2017 and awaits ratification by each European member state’s legislature to take full effect. Under CETA, Canada granted 143 European Geographical Indications (GIs), of which 41 were Italian. No Canadian product imitating an Italian GI will be permitted to enter the EU and Italian GIs will receive a high level of protection in Canada, in most cases like what they enjoy in Europe.

Despite this, during the summer of 2018, leaders in the current Italian coalition government were quoted saying that the government would not only refuse to ratify CETA, but also remove any official who promotes the agreement. The populist government likes to be tough on the EU because many of its supporters favor that approach, but the stated opposition to CETA is concern with counterfeiting of Italian specialties and a desire for a lengthened list of protected products. As of February 2019, the Italian government has not issued an official position, and there remains a risk that Italy may not ratify the accord.

On October 16, 2018, the Trump Administration notified Congress of an intent to negotiate a trade agreement with the European Union. U.S. producers have long complained about the EU’s agricultural policies, such as preventing U.S. cheese makers from using European names for their products. The White House included addressing agricultural tariff and non-tariff barriers in U.S. negotiating objectives for a future trade agreement with the EU, and made the argument that the U.S. Congress would be unlikely to approve any deal that does not include agriculture. At the same time, the EU has been very clear that its negotiators will not discuss the topic.

With uncertainty around Italian approval of CETA, the final scope of U.S.-EU negotiations to be defined, and U.S. and EU negotiators gearing up for the challenges ahead, North End locals continue to stock their shelves with balsamic vinegar of Modena, mozzarella di bufala, and other PDO- or PGI-labeled products.

Many Italian producers are concerned that, in the United States, the level of recognition of such products is not sufficiently strong and brand awareness is too generic. However, Bostonians have more immediate (and longstanding) concerns, such as who has the better North End cannoli – Mike’s Pastry or Modern Pastry – a good question based on the perpetually long lines at both.

Feature photo credit: Leslie Griffin