BY EDMUND MOKHTARIAN
I remember my first time heading into Boston about a year ago. As an eager foodie, I had researched all the regional specialties I just had to try: clam chowder, Italian food, Indian pudding, etc. No experience stuck with me, though, quite like my first bite of a true Bostonian cannoli from the North End. I knew I had to return to find the best of the best.
You may be wondering, though, why I’d go to such lengths for something so simple as a cannoli. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like anything special. Rich, heavy, sweet, and oily, it’s a treat for the layman rather than the connoisseur.
Yet bakeries in the North End have been battling tooth-and-nail for decades over the right to claim the “best cannoli”—and the corresponding ability to draw hordes of hungry customers and tourists to rush the neighborhood every day for that one treat. How could such a simple sweet—a piece of fried dough with some cream—so captivate a whole neighborhood? How can a cannolo possibly be so good? To finally settle those mysteries, I headed into the North End this last weekend to conduct a cannoli battle of my own among five of the most esteemed bakeries.
46 Cross St.
I began with a quaint little shop at the very entrance of the North End, Maria’s Pastry. Little bigger than a food truck, it was almost barren, letting its display do the talking. I ordered a plain ricotta cannolo from Maria herself, a no-nonsense lady, whose old age and demeanor only assured me of her talent. She brought out a small but surprisingly dense cannolo, filled perfectly so that not a drop of cream would ooze out.
I was impressed with the overall flavor. Unlike most typical bakeries, Maria’s emphasizes nuance, preferring to control the sugar and let the richness of the ricotta speak for itself. The ricotta curds weren’t all that well integrated into the cream, giving it an extreme thickness more reminiscent of custard than cream.
The cannolo also had serious technical flaws that kept it from true excellence. Much flakier than typical, Maria’s shell practically crumbled apart upon my first bite, making for an unsatisfying grittiness in the mouth that was only intensified by the ricotta’s own grittiness. The blandness of that shell didn’t make matters any better, nor did Maria’s overwhelming sprinkling of powdered sugar.
64 Cross St.
I thus moved on to Café Graffiti, looking for more flavor and technique. Unlike most cannoli producers, Café Graffiti functions as a full sit-down restaurant. It drew me in with its table service, graffiti-covered wall, and limonata, a delicious lemon soda that any lover of Italian culture must try.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t all show, either. Café Graffiti offers just one variety of connolo, a monstrously large plain ricotta. Like Maria’s pastry, this ricotta tends to be thick and gritty, with ricotta curds rubbing across the mouth. The cream is a tad too sweet, but that’s very easy to overlook because it tastes so fresh, since it’s served at just the right temperature, as though it has just been taken out of the fridge.
Just as good, though, is the shell. Café Graffiti fills it on the spot so that it never gets soggy. It thus has an extreme crispiness—one that gives you a crunch without falling apart on you. That shell does, however, leave an oily residue that can be unsatisfying. Still, the cannolo was excellent.
134 Salem St.
My next stop finally took me deep into the North End, this time to the opposite side, where an inconspicuous, uncrowded bakery sits. I speak of Bova’s, the only 24-hour bakery I’ve seen to date. Don’t get too excited, though, because Bova’s probably is not the place where you want to snack at 2 a.m.
I ordered three pint-sized cannoli, one each of chocolate, vanilla, and ricotta, but none stood out in any way, for three reasons. First, the creams were served extremely frosty, so much so that the flavor was suppressed. Second, the shell was absolutely horrible, both cloyingly oily and far too brittle. It took, in fact, one bite for each cannolo to crumble apart, surprising given how small the cannoli were. Finally, all three varieties were under flavored, though at least the ricotta cream was wonderfully airy and smooth.
Thankfully, I had saved the two best spots for last, and I immediately headed over, if for nothing else than to redeem my faith in cannoli after the failure at Bova’s. As I walked down Hanover Street, I found myself confronted with two endless lines on either side of the street, curving around the whole block. There is nothing quite like seeing a 30-minute-long line for some fried dough and cream to make you realize just how seriously Bostonians take their cannoli.
So what could draw out such large numbers? Well, these two bakeries, Mike’s and Modern, have been cannoli rivals for over 70 years. They are the undisputed grand masters of the art, and each has drawn countless throngs of supporters who have for years debated the merits of their respective shop’s pastry.
257 Hanover St.
I’ll start off with Modern, the younger challenger, which produces the city’s most elegant cannoli. I again tried three varieties: vanilla, chocolate, and ricotta. In each case, the shell was as fresh as possible, since Modern fills its shells on the spot. These shells easily maintain their flakiness and crunch without sacrificing the structural integrity of the cannoli, surprising considering the heaviness of the creams. Best of all, though, the shells are also the city’s least oily, leaving you refreshed rather than bloated.
The creams can, however, taste artificial and light. The chocolate cream, for example, feels practically whipped. Thankfully, the ricotta fares better, as it comes thick with a very strong hint of cheese. It is by far the most nuanced and balanced of the North End, using the least sugar.
300 Hanover St.
Mike’s Pastry, in contrast, goes for flavor more than balance, bombarding your taste buds with sensory overload until you’re left dazed. The cannoli are huge, allowing Mike’s to overstuff theirs with cream. Moreover, the cream always comes thick and rich, to the point that it verges on custard. The cannoli can be slightly too sweet, but they always capture the flavor perfectly. In the ricotta, for example, you can taste and feel the ricotta curds. Add to that the most flavorful shell of the bunch, very reminiscent of a yolky wonton cracker, and you nearly have perfection.
My one complaint? Mike’s pre-fills its cannoli, so they aren’t as fresh as Modern’s. It nevertheless attests to the quality of the handmade shell that not only does it support the most cream of any of the cannoli in town, but it still has the largest crunch of any I tried, pre-filled or fresh.
So what’s the verdict? Though it pains me to credit the most touristy of the competitors, Mike’s does indeed pull off the win. Modern does come close, especially with its greater focus on smoothness and balance, but the original almost always does it best. Mike’s has held strong through time not only with the quality of its shell and fillings, but with its ability to take cannoli to new heights with a dizzying amount of flavors, including six different creams, three different shells, and innumerable toppings.
Mike’s cannoli are, in short, an experience of pure culinary nirvana. Need I say more?
Edmund Mokhtarian (’13) is a food critic and blogger. At his blog, The Food Buster (www.thefoodbuster.com), he reviews restaurants, bakeries, wines, and chocolates from around the nation and the world. For more reviews and photos of the Boston food scene, check out The Food Buster.