Take the Cannoli

Are the best cannoli in the world available to Minnesotans, and even Bismarckers? Dear Dara finds out.

Dear Dara,

I have yet to find decent cannoli in the Twin Cities area. Believe it or not, I live in the hinterlands—Bismarck, North Dakota—but I'd drive the 420 miles in my gas-hog Dodge Durango if I could get my grubby hands on some decent Italian pastries.

My dad was born on Staten Island, and we took him back to NYC to see his relatives five years ago. The cannoli and other Italian pastries were outstanding. I figured the Twin Cities should have something comparable, but every place I've been to in the Twin Cities serves prefab cannoli, which is obviously very depressing.

Harold, of Bismarck

 

Dear Harold,

Holy buckets—Bismarck! 420 miles! In a Durango! For a cannoli! I feel faint.

Harold, when I first got your letter I thought it was impossible. I thought: No cannoli is worth that price—what does gas cost these days? Then I thought about it for a few months, and I realized: Life without cannoli? Nothing is worth that price, either. So I dedicated a week of my life to the great cannoli quest.

Before I tell you what happened, though, let's make sure all of us are on the same page. So, class: What the heck is a cannoli? You all know what it is—a fried tube of a shell, filled with something white, sweet, and cold. It's available at many Italian restaurants, and, like pizza, even when it's not very good, it's pretty good. Right? Fine.

Now let's talk good cannoli, another thing entirely. The pastries come from Sicily, where thrifty shepherds, herding, um, you know, sheep, came up with a way to use every morsel of milk that went into their cheese making. So, every day they would collect their ewes' milk and begin a process to make some expensive, hard cheese that would eventually go to market. This process involved separating the cheese curds from the cheese whey, a watery stuff with some leftover milk solids. Being thrifty shepherds, they found a way to add a little fresh milk to the whey and re-cook it, which results in the fresh, barely-a-cheese ricotta (ricotta means re-cooked). This way they had something to eat (the ricotta) and something to sell (the expensive hard cheese.) Over time the Sicilians came to use this thrifty cheese for all kinds of things—as a sauce for pasta with a bit of olive oil, as a bread-spread with a bit of salt, and so forth. On holidays the ricotta was combined with a little sugar, maybe some candied fruits or pistachios, cinnamon, nutmeg, or what have you, and stuffed into tubes of fried dough. Voila! The cannoli: the half-thrifty, half-indulgent treat of a Mediterranean shepherding island.

Enter the Southern Italian diaspora. The urban American East Coast. Italian bakeries. Cow's milk ricotta. Mini chocolate chips. The Godfather: "Leave the guns. Take the cannoli." And do you know why you have to take the cannoli? Because they're delicious, of course—but also because they can't sit. For every second the ricotta filling sits in the crisp, fried shell, the quality of the cannoli deteriorates. A cannoli made even eight hours ago is a soggy, nasty, sad thing. So, the first thing, Harold, in our hunt for a good cannoli is to find a fresh one.

To begin the quest, I hit half a dozen Italian delis in the metro area. I found some really awful cannoli and some really good ones. The worst cannoli was from a St. Paul deli, and it was the worst because it tasted like someone had dunked it in a tea made of Kool menthol smoke and diesel gasoline. The second-worst was from a place in Eagan that took prepackaged cannoli shells and filled them with something that tasted suspiciously like sour cream, cream cheese, and sugar married in the holy chapel of Cuisinart. But we are not here to kick the losers, who, after all, have enough problems; we are here to celebrate the winners. Who are:

Broders' Cucina Italiana: As always in all things Italian, Broder's races to the head of the pack. They bring in their mini shells and filling from a traditional Italian bakery in Troy, New York, Bella Napoli, and assemble fresh mini cannoli constantly. The traditional plain ones are lovely. The ends are made bright green by dipping them in ground pistachio nuts, the shells are crisp and substantial, the interiors are weighty, creamy, and lovably forthright. The chocolate ones are not too much like cannoli at all, as their intense filling of chocolate and ground hazelnuts is kind of like eating a chocolate-nutella bar—but hey. They definitely taste good. Broders' sells their traditional mini cannoli for $1.95, or $2.75 for a chocolate one, and while they might or might not be worth a drive from Bismarck, they are definitely worth a trip from any part of Minneapolis. (Broder's Cucina Italiana, 2308 W. 50th St., Minneapolis; 612.925.3113; www.broders.com)

Buon Giorno Italia: When Buon Giorno relocated to its glitzy Lilydale location, leaving in its old spot the humble Buon Giorno Express, I lamented the loss of the old, chaotic, grandiose mess that had so much community, heart, and soul. Lately, though, I'm having to reassess my opinion of the new Buon Giorno, as the place has been on a strong uptick, led by some significant takeout, beautiful meat counter and charcuterie, and wonderful imported pastas. If you haven't been there since they opened, or if you've never been, now's the time to go, and when you're there, be sure to request that the lovely ladies behind the counter fashion you a cannoli. They make them—hooray!—to order, so the crispy shells are snappingly, shatteringly fresh. The filling is buoyant with good ricotta, cheered by chocolate bits, and haunted by a bit of cinnamon spice; the ends are leprechaun-green with pistachios, and the things are nothing less than the picture of cannoli happiness. (Buon Giorno Italia, 981 Sibley Memorial Hwy, Lilydale; 651.905.1081; www.buongiornoitalia.biz)

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