Bad enough are the roasted nut and pseudo-pizza stands that greet commuters upon departure from the train. Even worse, though, is the blinding array of CVS marquis, Gap displays and trendy nouveau cuisine eateries that vex disillusioned Harvard students yearning for the long-lost quaintness of charismatic local city neighborhoods. Today, convention is readily acquired by the swipe of a credit card, and one need not venture outside the 1-mile radius of Store 24 to take a virtual walk through similarly commercialized Beantown. The mom & pop establishments with faded awnings, friendly hellos and century-old traditions are rapidly disappearing from the much frequented causeways of the big city.
But here's a call out to all the adventuresome T-setters spending their nickels and dimes on destinations other than Filene's and Fresh Pond Cinema. While some regard the T as a lifeline for commercialism, in fact a closer glance at outbound Red Line T-stops reveals hidden quirky outlets interspersed in the clusters of department stores, convenience mini-markets and fast food chains.
ALEWIFE: Jack's Smoke Shop
A brisk walk across the bridge from the Alewife T-stop, Fresh Pond's poor excuse for a mall engulfs the horizon. However, nestled between the shadows of Staples and Toys `R' Us is Jack's Smoke Shop, housing both Megabucks lotto tickets and Macanudo cigars in a single cramped room. According to owner Sonny Cimenian, Jack's boasts 135 cigar brand names along with pipe tobacco, humidors and Keno. Cigar smokers trek from as far as Hyde Park and other distant outposts of Boston to browse through the boxes of Ashtons, Padrons and Montecristos lining the shelves. Sonny will aid cigar novices with his storehouse of tobacco knowledge, choosing selections according to price ranges and personal tastes. While the wannabe-pretentious Harvardian may feign unswerving devotion to Leavitt and Peirce, the true tobacco aficiando is willing to brave the ride to Alewife in exchange for Sonny's expertise and, of course, an opportunity to play Keno.
DAVIS SQUARE: La Contessa Pastries
Joseph Margliaro describes his Highland Avenue business as an "old-fashioned Italian neighborhood bakery," the lifeblood of local college cannoli fans. La Contessa is a humming factory of sweet morsels like macaroons, almond bars and biscotti which emerge from the barn-sized oven perfectly crispy and begging to be devoured. All of the sumptuous pastries follow traditional recipes which can be traced back to the kings of Italy. Joseph began learning the trade as a young child and has been polishing his baking technique for 68 years (La Contessa itself has been tempting palates for four decades.) While other bakeries shifted their locales to the newly commercialized North End, Joseph resisted the trend of "going modern" and planted his roots firmly outside Boston. He proclaims his Italian rum cake (strangely sans rum) to be La Contessa's premiere creation, and the sfogliatelle taste-experience is well worth an 85-cent T-token. In an age of Au Bon Pain insta-muffins and glossy baguettes, La Contessa provides that long-forgotten component of family tradition and stick-to-your hips ricotta pie.
PORTER SQUARE: Stereo Jack's
The closer one gets to Cambridge, the harder it is to escape bagel chains and venues of cashmere sweater sets. Stereo Jacks is a slight hike down Mass Ave from Porter, but the CD, record and tape collection is a refreshing change from the hum-drum top-40 adult contemporary hits of Tower records and even the ultra-trendy underground of In Your Ear. Jack Woker, the proud founder of this establishment, has been providing eccentric music-listeners with old favorites like "Fabulous Harmonica played by the Yama Yama Man" and "Serenades for Sex Kittens." In particular, the shop specializes in Jazz, Blues, Classic Rock and "Roots" music. Seekers of Chumba Wumba and Olivia Newton John will have to look elsewhere for their fix of mainstream pop and other musical schlock. A written blurb really cannot do justice to this unique source of hifi records and rare gems of the forgotten eras. The titles undoubtedly speak for themselves: "Music to grow Plants," "Music for the Halfassed," "Polka Encounters of the Honky Kind," and "Music for Washing and Ironing" among others. The bust of Elvis in the window beckons passersby to pick up their own personal "Limbo Party" collector's series, great for any Harvard dorm bash. And when your Citystep formal date mugs down in the corner with that sketchy guy from Grafton, Stereo Jack's record titled "How to Overcome Discouragement" has to be a first step to emotional recovery.
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