Home to the bona fide quaintest strip of St-Laurent Boulevard, Little Italy is everything Italians are famous for being: festive, fast, gourmand, familial and handsome. In short: Little Italy does it better…
The original settling place for Montreal’s first Italian immigrants was nearer the St-Lawrence River, in today’s Chinatown. But the late 19th century brought a migration northward because of new jobs in the area’s railways and stone quarries. Today’s Little Italy, delineated to the south by Bellechasse, to the south by Jean-Talon, to the west by St-Laurent and to the east by St-Denis, was still dominated by fields and farmland as recently as 1900.
That history lives on in the neighbourhood’s most charming icon, namely the Jean-Talon Market, which beats at the heart of this foodie neighbourhood. Back in the day, the open-air market sprouted because of the Italian residents’ Old World habit of eating fresh fruit and vegetables. Today, it’s a hopping, bustling place to wander about, munch on street foods (mmm, sausage on a stick) and buy produce and more. Much, much more, in fact: meat, fish, cheese, bread, Mexican dishes at Tortilleria Maya, Middle-Eastern sandwiches at L’Olivier – in other words, just because it’s Little Italy doesn’t mean it’s all Italian.
But if it is Italian you’re after, you’re in luck. One of the city’s best Italian restaurants is just off the market. At Ristorante Primo & Secondo, the melt-in-your-mouth meat dishes follow pastas that will may you cry “Mama mia!” at the top of your lungs, no matter how classy the joint. There are various more down-home options for a quick pizza, the most famous being Pizza Napoletana – order the margherita – and close contender Elio’s, where you can get either thin crust or regular, and, on special days, their home-rolled pasta. Keep room for dessert, though, because Roma is famous for its cannoli, and the newer kid on the block, La Cornetteria, can give it a run for its money too.
Milano, on St-Laurent, is a sprawling Italian supermarket that’s worth the visit even after you’ve filled your basket at Jean-Talon Market, if only for the never-ending selection of olives and Italian candies. That strip of the Main turns into party central during car racing season and soccer competitions – Italians wear their sportsmen’s hearts on their sleeves. Upper St-Laurent has been known to close off traffic altogether to turn into a bumper-car racetrack!
After all that shopping you’ll need a pick-me-up: where else than Café Italia, makers of what many consider the best espresso in town? The hole in the wall counts only a few tables, but you don’t even need to sit – just saddle up to the counter, down your espresso in one fell swoop, and go, Roman style. You’ll be so buzzed you’ll have fuel for some of the hood’s best stores. Lovers of sleek design with fall head over heels for Bélanger & Martin(s). If vintage clothing is your thing, La Founderie is replete with designer finds (Chanel, Yves Saint-Laurent, Nicole Miller have all featured). Gizmos and fun things for both the house and gifts are chock-a-block at the colourful emporium Motivo, full of Joseph Joseph, Umbra and new Japanese brands.
And no profile of Little Italy is complete without mentioning Quincaillerie Dante: a founding member of the neighbourhood’s foodie scene, the chic hardware store sells everything from the most stylish espresso machines to, well, shotguns, because as the owner sees it, no hunter worth his salt isn’t a lover of food. There’s also a teaching kitchen at the back, where some of the city’s top chefs have been known to appear. Manga!
Isa Tousignant is contributing editor for Canadian Art, Montreal correspondent for Akimbo, and a freelance writer on art, culture, travel, design and shoes for everyone from enRoute to Canadian Business to herself.
Photos: Eva Blue