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  • Courtesy photo

    The Fairmont Battery Wharf in Boston's North End.
  • Courtesy photo

    Fresh fish at Mercato del Mare in Boston's North End.
  • Courtesy photo

    The interior of the Shake the Tree shop in Boston's North End.
  • Courtesy photo

    Mercato del Mare in Boston's North End.
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Traditional, modern mix together in Boston’s North End

When I was a little girl, my grandmother and I had a Friday ritual: shopping in Boston’s North End.

Grandma had come from Italy in the early part of the 20th century, and to her, the North End was the closest thing to an Italian market as she could get. Here, she would haggle prices in Italian with the greengrocer, the butcher, and the pasta and egg men.

Salem, Hanover and Cross streets were clogged with pushcarts filled with freshly slaughtered hogs and pigs, crates of live chickens and fresh fish from the fishing boats down at the harbor. Juxtaposed with all this were crates and carts filled with fruits and vegetables: bright yellow lemons, juicy oranges, huge deep-purple eggplants, crisp green peppers, barrels full of chestnuts and peanuts, and ropes of garlic hung everywhere scenting the air.

At Dairy Fresh Candies on Salem Street, Grandma would let me choose from wooden baskets overflowing with Italian nougats (Torrone), candy-covered almonds (confetti), licorice whips, Tootsie Pops and malted milk balls. We always ended the day with espresso and cannoli at Modern Pastry on Hanover Street.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the wharfs that were once filled with fishing boats are now lined with condominiums and a luxury hotel, the Fairmont Battery Wharf. While Modern Pastry is still going strong, many of the mom-and-pop stores are a thing of the past. Their spots are filled with upscale restaurants and shops, many of which are owned by young, hip professionals.

In the Salem Street shop where my grandmother bought her cobblers, aprons and cotton housedresses is Moda, offering chic athletic gear, yoga togs and mats. Up the street, Shake the Tree offers custom-made jewelry, clothing and bags by designers such as Orla Kiely, Tano and Latico. Then there’s Mercato del Mare, filled with a variety of fresh fish caught at George’s Bank, along with a line of gourmet sauces.

Even if you don’t know beans about wine, the knowledgeable staff at the Wine Bottega on Hanover Street will take you in hand and guide you. The shop houses thousands of bottles of wine from all over the world.

The Velvet Fly has a stellar line of vintage clothing, jewelry and house wares. In-jean-ius is the place to go for – what else? – jeans. Choose from 30 or more brands by famous designers: Joe’s Jeans, Rock & Republic, Denim for Immortality and Joie, to name a few. They also carry hundreds of one-of-a-kind T-shirts, sweaters and jackets.

You can still get a taste of the old North End on one of Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours, where, on a two-hour guided tour, you’ll discover Old World pasticcerias (pastry shops) and salumerias (meat shops) that are still a part of the North End.