Surrounded by swaths of industrial warehouses, this small patch of land just north of Mile End was first settled by Italian immigrants in their thousands after World War II. Over decades it grew into the vibrant home of the second-largest Italian population in Canada, where it has blossomed into a lively community. Narrow streets seamlessly combine crowded coffee shops, cosy candlelit restaurants and artisanal shops nestled next to examples of quintessential Montreal residential architecture, century-old tri-level apartment buildings wrapped in long outdoor staircases.
The area is on the upswing after many young artists have moved here, so now busy craft breweries like Vice Versa sit comfortably alongside the convent, the churches and the small parks of the area. Micro-local chefs such as Beaver Sheppard have found a home amongst the quiet Italian pastry shops that have been plying the delicate craft of dessert making for decades. The recent influx of Latinos has enriched an already culturally wealthy neighbourhood, with national cuisines – Salvadoran, Cuban, Peruvian, Mexican, you name it – on every block, so now the best pizza in town has to vie with the best tacos and pupusas. Whether drinks and nosh on a snowy Tuesday night in February or a stroll through the crowded Jean-Talon Market on a sunny weekend in July, Little Italy is a cornucopia of sights and sounds, food and drink for local and tourist alike.
A lively, thriving market bursting with all manner of fresh food and flowers from around the province, here a small army of independent producers with a focus on farm-to-table supply the entire neighbourhood – from grandmother to head chef – with locally grown ingredients. Stroll through the open-air rows of booths and kiosks in the summertime to marvel at the rainbow of colours, then grab an artisanal hot chocolate, sharpen your elbows and clear a path through the crowds when the busy market goes indoors for winter.
As wiser Montrealers have forgotten the sprawling, lifeless grocery boxstores and taken advantage of cheap parking and the chance to explore Little Italy, the market has reclaimed its title as the original and ultimate one-stop-shop. Is fresh produce not enough for you? Not a problem: a diverse selection of restaurants, specialty food shops and everyday butchers, bakers and fishmongers surround the agora of vendors, all ready to cater to whatever your taste buds desire. Does your grocery list include maple syrup, high-end teas, spicy street-food tacos, organic pork chops and a dozen roses? If so, the Jean- Talon Market is definitely for you.
The OG of coffee shops in a neighbourhood built around coffee shops, this mid-century original, opened in 1956, has retained its rep in the face of all upstarts. It is a well-known joke that Caffé Italia’s charm lies in its veritable charmlessness, but don’t be put off by the fluorescent lighting and lack of décor, because the jibe only means this shop is an old-school workhorse offering espressos to locals for decades with no pretentions. Open from 6am to midnight, any minute of the day will find you jostling with impeccably dressed old men playing cards or being drawn into heated discussions about art and politics and ice hockey with the caffeinated regulars.
Second home to many in the neighbourhood, you’ll find the bleary-eyed football fan there to support his Italian team early on Sunday morning, the struggling writer knocking over her pile of papers after her sixth delicious latte, or the young family that comes for the foosball table and charcuterie sandwiches. Espresso-based coffees, simple pastries and thick sandwiches, that’s it, all done like they should be. And as a final nod to the old school, Caffé Italia inexplicably sells a fine selection of men’s grooming products imported from Italy.
Blink and you’ll miss it – the name of this dusty, hole-in-the-wall gem literally translates as “Our Lady of Bowling”, called so because of the two small bowling lanes tucked into the corner. Abbreviated to “NDQ” by the locals, this hip, dark, queer-friendly resto-bar is a regular haunt for the city’s cutting-edge crowd, and almost everyone here – patron and customer alike – is involved in the arts. A ramshackle, low-key place to rest after exploring the neighbourhood, the quiet tavern atmosphere shapeshifts into whatever colourful event is planned after the sun goes down, be it hipster bingo, drag karaoke or EDM party.
If the cool-kid factor isn’t enough to sell you on NDQ, it also hosts a separate business within its walls, Velo Burrito (“Bike Burrito”) churning out ever-scrumptious, always-filling cheap eats. An open kitchen at the end of the bowling lanes is constantly wrapping together a wide selection of burritos, the spicy aromas whetting appetites throughout the bar, but its real business is out in the streets. Rain, snow or shine, an intrepid team of cyclists will bike a massive cylinder of Tex Mex goodness to you anywhere in the neighbourhood.
On a quiet street in Little Italy, beneath the massive Our Lady of Defense church, Alati-Caserta has been plying its delicate craft of Italian dessert making for decades. Dimly lit and wood-panelled, it’s like walking into a faded postcard or a sweet-smelling time machine. Opened in 1968 by Vittorio Caldarone, who learned the secrets of the dessert arts in Switzerland and Italy, the hole in-the-wall bakery is now run by his son Marco.
Classic not just in style but substance, all its recipes come from Italy, and everything it sells – from dough to icing – is made in the back kitchen: amaretti cookies by the pound, almond cakes by the loaf, biscotti by the dozen, cannolis by the hundred and sticky-sweet rum balls by the millions. Alati-Caserta is widely considered to have the best cannolis in town, but only tackle its massive sfogliatella if you dare: a shell-shaped custard- or ricotta-filled treat with hundreds of paper-thin folds of pastry, giving it the appearance of a lobster claw (as it is sometimes called in English).
Many regulars cross town on weekends to get their hands on the cannolis before they sell out, or order a custom-made dream creation for a birthday party. And don’t miss the display in the front window: a four-foot-high model of the leaning tower of Pisa, entirely made in pastry. You could call it the icing on the cake.