Thinking about the transformation of the Lower East Side (see the posting below from November 17) has put me in a neighborhood state of mind…Boston/Cambridge, my home for over 20 years, made for entertaining reading in Ethan Gilsdorf’s recent piece about Boston for the New York Times‘ “American Journeys” series. Focusing on the Main Street neighborhood in Cambridge near MIT, he titled his article, “A Science Lover’s Kind of Town,” featuring the ice cream shop that my children have loved all their lives—Toscanini’s:

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When you run an ice cream parlor down the street from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you expect your customers to chat about stem cell research or trade theories about neutrinos between licks of burnt caramel. But Gus Rancatore, whose Toscanini’s shop in Cambridge, Mass., is renowned as much for its deep-thinking clientele as for its sundaes, discovered long ago that catering to the technology-minded crowd could have unforeseen advantages.

One day, two M.I.T. students who were “working in superconductors,” Mr. Rancatore said, took a good look at his ice cream machine, visible through his shop window, and were “distressed by the poor engineering.” So they took it back to their lab and transformed its inefficient gear-drive mechanism into a lean, mean, belt-driven machine. That was 23 years ago. “We still use the machine,” Mr. Rancatore said. “Another generation of M.I.T. engineers just tuned it up this summer.”

In metropolitan Boston, including Cambridge, home of Harvard and M.I.T., and the technology corridor out on Route 128, the story is amusing, but not particularly surprising. At least since the early 1700s, when its cutting-edge physicians first offered smallpox inoculations, Boston has been a leader in sciences both theoretical and applied. Today, it’s still a town for science lovers, and the mood can be either serious or playful. If you’re the kind of person whose idea of fun is probing the structure of DNA or designing a faster toy bobsled, Boston is an inspiring place to spend a few days.

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What Gilsdorf couldn’t fit into his science theme but is big news from just a few doors down on Main Street is the long-awaited opening of Craigie on Main. This restaurant is both new and old—a revamped and relocated version of the famed Craigie Street Bistro formerly of Harvard Square.

For me and many of my foodie friends, the Craigie Street Bistro has been a site for devotional dining (because there is, after all, a palatable solemnity and religious ecstasy associated with this activity when done right.) This slightly out of the way, slightly cramped, basement bistro served up some of the best meals we’ve ever had.

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Award winning chef Tony Maws is a gifted culinarist and food visionary, and he brings a religious fanaticism to his commitment to only use biodynamically raised foods, in their season, raised locally. Night after night Maws adjusts his menu based on the availability of the best ingredients. Whether it is the to die for trois foie pate, eggs on cocotte, octopus a la poelle or his sweetened grits dessert (sounds a bit off kilter but you can’t believe how delicious it is), this is food like no where else. And you have to love a chef who has his wife AND his mother on the staff.

The time eventually came for the Craigie Streeters to leave the too tiny kitchen and subterranean dining space for a space that can give the cooking and the eating the room they both deserve. It’s a scary and fragile thing, moving an operation both up and out—to street level and into a much larger space. But perfectionism has its rewards. We had our first meal at the new Craigie on Main last week and it was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. Built around a large, open kitchen, the new restaurant feels scaled to spend the entire night amid the warmth, the bustle and the smells. The staff is, as they have always been, cheerful and welcoming. They even remembered that our family prefers olive oil with our bread. Wow.

While the food is THE thing, there is more to creating dining magic than just a feast of exquisite tastes. When Ruth Reichl was the New York Times food critic, she dressed up as several different characters so she would not be recognized at the restaurants she was reviewing. She has written about how her experience of the meal was colored significantly by how she was treated by the wait staff. When she showed up as the flirtatious blond bombshell, complete with big wig and fake fingernails, her dining experience was significantly better than when she was the mousy, middle-aged Midwesterner.

Mastery of food and context, now that’s something special. And my guess is that at Craigie on Main, you’ll be treated swell no matter who you come as—blond bombshell, mousy matron or MIT superconductor engineer. It’s that kind of a place.

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