Take the Cannoli
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
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)
However, are these really the best cannoli available today? Are these really cannoli worth the drive from Bismarck?
Happily, it is today, and not yesterday or, worse yet, yesteryear, and the internet is good for more than looking at pictures of plush toy panda bears made into hats. I mean, the East Coast used to be kind of far to go for dessert, but no more!
My personal favorite cannoli in the world are from a place called Veniero's, going strong on the lower east side of Manhattan since 1894. In order to really address the pressing question you pose, Harold, I ordered a dozen Veniero's cannoli second-day air, from www.venierospastry.com. For $42.95! Plus $26 shipping! Which is very nearly 70 bucks! For cannoli! Be still my exclaiming heart. Well, that works out to about $5.75 each, or only (only?) about twice what you'll pay locally. Of course, you never really want 12 cannoli, but logically, you can easily justify such a purchase when...ah...hey! Over there! Is that a plush panda bear made into a hat? Look at that. Heavens. The things people get up to today. Where was I?
Oh yes, the good news is, these Veniero cannoli arrived from New York, and I was immediately transported to cannoli heaven. The shells were a revelation to behold: Each one was brown, fat, and wide, with big, big bubbles and a sturdy, earthy, rustic appearance—they looked like old sparrows, or old sofas, something more real than cute. How did they make it here from the East Coast? In great shape, perfectly intact, as each was packaged in an individual sticky-topped bubble-wrap envelope, as befits something as precious as a Faberge egg, and much more delicious. The cannoli filling comes separate, in disposable plastic pastry bags. You simply cut the point off the triangular pastry bag, and squirt the filling into the shell just prior to eating, keeping it fresh as can be. With a dozen cannoli, you get four large bags of filling—I got half traditional filling and half chocolate. The traditional filling is heavy with ricotta, fresh, subtle with cinnamon, and made exotic with some perfectly soft candied fruit—delicious, delicious, delicious. The chocolate filling is fudgy, cinnamon-touched, and densely cheesy. All in all, I'd say Veniero's cannoli are weighty, substantial, unique, and really the height of the genre.
Unless of course there's an equal out there? I haven't much considered cannoli in the internet age, but I was astonished to find, while doing a little research, that lots and lots of East Coast bakeries now offer their cannoli online—including Staten Island's own Dominick's, home of the cannoli gram (www.dominicksbakerycafe.com). Then there's Ferrara Café, a staple of Manhattan's Little Italy, which offers their cannoli through their own website, www.ferraracafe.com, and through, um, Target. Yes, that Target. Or rather, Target.com—for $22.99, plus $8.99 shipping, you get 36 mini cannoli, which works out to about 89 cents each—which is far, far less than you can get the dang things for here, or in New York, or anywhere! Talk about selling ice to the Eskimos—we Minnesotans really are going to take over the world, if...Target is now king of the authentic cannoli game? Heavens. It's enough to make a food critic stick a plush panda bear on her head.
But what of those sheep I mentioned paragraphs and years ago, and what of homemade cannoli? It does occur to me that perhaps the best cannoli aren't here or there or anywhere, but the ones you make yourself. To that end, please know that both Cossetta and Surdyk's sell a really wonderful fresh ricotta from an East Coast producer called Calabro Cheese Corp. This Calabro ricotta costs $4 a pound at Cossetta, or $11.39 for a full three-pound tin, and a little more at Surdyk's Cheese Shop. You can also buy Alessi cannoli shells at Cosetta, $3.89 for six. (Yes, I tried Cossetta's cannolis—and I used to think I liked them, till I started the cannoli quest. Now I think the filling is too sweet, slick, and light—however, please know that Cossetta cannoli cost $3.05, with tax, and are made with mascarpone, whipped cream, and little chocolate bits, and are kind of adorable, in their way. (Cossetta, 211 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651.222.3476. Surdyk's Cheese Shop, 303 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.379.9757.) Anyhoo, this Calabro ricotta is light, subtle, and pure, and would make a fine dessert on its own with a bit of honey drizzled on top. However, if you started fiddling with it, adding mascarpone, whipped cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, and such, there's a good chance you might come up with a signature dessert that would draw the Sicilian shepherds from their fields, so to speak. And if you really want to take it the extra mile, you have two options. First, Surdyk's can special-order you some real sheep's milk ricotta, spendy stuff at about a dollar an ounce, but you know, there we are. After that, head out to one of the local Sweet Celebrations baking supply stores for your own cannoli tubes—you'll spend $4.89 for a set of four mini cannoli tubes, or $2.89 per large tube. (The Minnesota company Sweet Celebrations has four locations in Minnetonka, Burnsville, Edina, and Maplewood; see www.sweetc.com for details.)
And if you do all that, dear Harold, if you develop your own cannoli filling, if you perfect your own shells, then I predict that the good, cannoli-loving citizens of the Twin Cities will be the ones doing that 420-mile drive to your door.
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