About 24 employees, mostly Italian, including some who don’t speak English, oversee the process from the time flour, sugar, vanilla, and vinegar enter a mixer, to when the dough fries in lard, and the hot cannoli cool on a rack.
Amid clouds of flour and an aroma of frying dough, several women flank a conveyer belt, rapidly folding dough over short lengths of metal tubes. At the end of the assembly line, a man grabs freshly fried shells four at a time, and with one swift motion, flicks the tubes into a box. The echoing clinks can be heard outside the factory.
While other manufacturers use mostly machines, Bono says her factory — though it does have some equipment from Italy — takes pride in the fact that the shells are made by hand. “We do what bakeries want to do, but we do it for them,” she says.
Picariello of Modern isn’t embarrassed that he orders shells from Golden Cannoli. Modern made its own shells until about 15 years ago — when Picariello says his cannoli sales “went through the roof.” The business grew so much that he didn’t have the space to make hundreds of cannoli and 24 other handmade pastries. “I just couldn’t produce enough shells to meet my demand,” he says, adding that it was impossible to predict how many to make. “Some days you need 500 cannoli. Other days you need 1,500 cannoli.”
As for the filling, the baker still makes his own from locally produced Purity Cheese ricotta, adding sugar and flavoring before blending the ingredients in a mixer.
“It’s the right blend of sugar and ricotta that makes it work,” says Purity Cheese owner Peter Cucchiara, whose father, a Sicilian immigrant also named Peter, founded the business in the North End in 1938. (The company moved to Quincy in 1998 because of the Big Dig.) Unlike factories that make processed ricotta ready to sell in hours, which Cucchiara says has the consistency of mayonnaise, Purity Cheese makes ricotta with 100 percent raw milk and freezes it overnight.
A system of tubes pumps milk into four steel kettles, where 186-degree heat causes the liquid to separate, so the whey sits at the bottom and curds rise to the top. The curds are scooped into a plastic container and then chilled.
Cucchiara, 68, says Purity Cheese is the only local company that still produces ricotta the way it’s done in Italy. “I’m still using a Model T Ford,” he says. “Everybody else is driving around in a Mercedes.”
The cheesemaker slides open a heavy freezer door to reveal hunks of plain ricotta stacked in crates, freshly made the day before, ready for delivery to Mike’s. Mike’s and Modern are his biggest clients, and he produces about 1,600 pounds of ricotta a day for the two bakeries. “They’re the reason I come to work,” Cucchiara says.
In Modern’s kitchen, Picariello pipes shells with a pastry bag as several employees shout orders to him on a night when the line is out the front door. You need someone who can move, he says. “The object is speed.”
Cannoli experts say Modern Pastry sells cannoli the right way — by not pre-filling shells and displaying them in cases for hours, when shells get soggy and soft. “In Italian you say a cannoli needs to be croccante,” says Picariello. “It needs to be crisp when you bite into it.”
As Schwartz explains, you won’t find a pre-filled cannolo in Italy, nor will you find one 5 inches long. An inch and a half is more common. “In Italy it’s a consumable size,” says the author. “Here you have to divide it and split it with someone it’s so big.”
The size is more evidence the dessert has become “Americanized,” Bono says. “Places in the North End think bigger is better,” she adds. “They really want to impress people that walk in the door and have this really filled, big cannoli shell.”
But bigger doesn’t necessarily translate to better. Michele Scicolone, an Italian-American and author of “1,000 Italian Recipes,” laments the fact that bakeries have outsourced some of their ingredients for the dessert. “I think a better bakery would take the trouble to make their own fresh [cannoli],” says Scicolone. The best one she ever ate was in Sicily.
Picariello and some of his family members can’t judge cannoli for themselves. “My father is a diabetic, I’m lactose-free, and my sister is gluten-free, and look at what we do,” says Picariello, laughing at the irony of not being able to indulge in their own specialty.
Connoisseurs like Vigiano and all the tourists who flood the North End can savor the pastry for them.
Modern Pastry, 257 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 617-523-3783
Mike’s Pastry, 300 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 617-742-3050
Maria’s Pastry Shop, 46 Cross St., North End, Boston, 617-523-1196
Stephanie Steinberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @steph_steinberg.