Standing under glowing red and lime-green neon lights of the pastry shop sign, Adam Vigiano takes a large bite of a crisp, golden cannolo filled with sweet ricotta. The visitor from Manhattan and his three friends hold white pastry boxes to catch crumbs and any filling that might slide out as they devour the dessert on a Hanover Street curb.
Vigiano, 30, claims he’s a “cannoli connoisseur” and pulls out his cellphone to prove it. He scrolls through pictures until he finds a photo of himself standing next to someone in a giant cannolo costume at an Italian festival in New York. But he had never sampled one in the North End, so his friends brought him to Modern Pastry one Friday night last month.
“Boston has New York on cannoli,” he says, finishing his last bite and pronouncing it “outstanding.”
Down the street, Justin Reese is standing in a line that wraps around the door outside Mike’s Pastry. Reese, 31, from Charlotte, N.C., and his two friends say they never waited in a line this long for any kind of dessert. “A friend from Boston said it would be a crime to leave Boston without trying Mike’s Pastry,” Reese says from his spot outside.
Over the last few decades the North End has become the mecca of cannoli (the plural form does not have an ‘s’; cannolo is the singular). On any given weekend, especially in the warm months, tourists and locals flock to pastry shops like Modern, Mike’s, and Maria’s to order the flaky fried shells piped with ricotta or custard filling. Since Italian immigrants started making cannoli in bakeries 100 years ago, the dessert has found its place in the American pantheon of pastries.
“Cannoli is one of those products that is becoming very well known and enjoyed by all types of people — not just the little old Italian lady who lives on Hanover Street,” says Valerie Ann Bono, vice president of sales and marketing at Golden Cannoli Shells Co., a manufacturer based in Somerville.
But cannoli in America do not look, or taste, like the cannoli stacked behind glass display cases in Palermo, Sicily, where the dessert originated. According to Arthur Schwartz, author of “The Southern Italian Table,” the pastry has gone through the “immigrant experience.” Like all ethnic food entering this country, Schwartz says, “it gets bigger, it gets fatter or richer, it gets distorted by the abundance of America.”
The main difference lies in the filling. In Sicily, ricotta — the traditional filling — is made with sheep’s milk, which gives the cheese a tangy taste and dense texture. In the United States, Italian bakers use cow’s milk ricotta, creating a loose consistency that causes it to slide out of the shell. To hold the filling, bakers add confectioners’ sugar or a starch, which makes the dessert “too sweet or too starchy,” says Schwartz, who has a cooking school in Italy.
In Sicily, traditional fillings include pieces of chopped chocolate, slivers of almond, or candied fruits such as orange and lemon peel, pears, and cherries. Those extras are hardly found in America because customers don’t want them.
John Picariello, 43, a great-nephew of Modern Pastry founder Michael Mazzeo, who runs the bakery with his mother and sister, tried selling cannoli with fruit, but it didn’t go over well. “People would always complain that they didn’t want citrus fruit in their cannoli so we stopped putting it in,” he says. Now, the bakery only offers ricotta, vanilla, and chocolate custard, or whipped cream.
“As people’s taste buds changed, we changed with them,” says Picariello, a sixth-generation pastry chef from Southern Italy. “So when people say, ‘Oh, that’s not the real McCoy.’ Well, we might not be able to sell the real McCoy.”
Mike’s Pastry, which declined to be interviewed, offers what cannoli experts consider unconventional filling flavors such as Oreo, hazelnut, and strawberry.
Bono, whose Golden Cannoli specializes in shells, but also produces ricotta, agrees that the “old-school, traditional cannoli” has become Americanized. She points to clients who pump shells with soft-serve ice cream. She’s even heard about dog treat manufacturers who fill shells with dog food. The latest phenomenon is cannoli chips and dip, in which restaurants like Northeast chain Ninety Nine sell cannoli shell chips and ricotta cheese dip.
With all the new variations, Bono says her family-owned company faces the challenge of holding on to the essence of the ethnic dessert. Her father, Francesco Bono, started making cannoli for his Arlington bakery in 1970 with a cousin and two employees. Local pastry shops placed orders for shells, and the business eventually grew into a manufacturing company that produces more than 100,000 shells a day for bakeries in the North End and supermarkets across the United States. Continued...