Boston's North End is the sort of Little Italy other cities only dream of. With narrow, winding streets, killer pizzerias, and AC Milan vs. Juventus soccer matches on every bar TV, it's a neighborhood that hasn't strayed far from its Southern Italian roots. Which, of course, makes it a prime place for cannoli-hunting.
While the streets are lined with pasticcerie, the cannoli landscape revolves around two major contenders: Mike's Pastry and Modern Pastry Shop, facing off on opposite sides of Hanover Street. Mike's is the tourist-trafficked favorite, but many locals prefer Modern's modest storefront and delicate pastry shells.
So which of these two is the real cannoli king?
Mike's Pastry: A North End Institution
If I were running for president, Mike's is the sort of place I'd stop on the campaign trail. (And I wouldn't be the first--former President Clinton is reportedly a huge fan). Lines invariably stretch out the door. Upon entering, anyone with a sweet tooth will feel like a kid in a candy shop--the variety of biscotti, butter cookies, rum cakes, cream puffs, and other Italian pastries boggles the mind.
Mike's doesn't do anything in moderation, and the cannoli are no exception--lined up on the top shelf, their flavors start with yellow and chocolate cream, proceeding to chocolate mousse, New York cheesecake, nutty Florentine cannoli, and more. But real pastry skill comes out in the classics, so my order was simple: one ricotta cannolo.
Big and hefty, filled to the brim, Mike's cannoli are a sight to behold. This one had a substantial crispy shell that was fried to a satisfying crunch, and held its shape until the very last bite. The filling was wonderfully sweet and almost silky in texture. Generously sized as it was, it was nearly impossible not to finish--a pastry that would make any Sicilian proud.
But it wasn't perfect. While the shell wasn't greasy, it did taste fried, making it feel heavier than I'd like. As tasty as the filling was, it verged on being too sweet, a bit reminiscent of the icing on a birthday cake. And since the cannoli are pre-filled, the ricotta starts to seep into the shell. Mine certainly wasn't soggy, but neither was it crisp as it could be.
Modern Pastry Shop: The Local Favorite
Across Hanover Street, Modern Pastry Shop has a line of its own, but nothing compared to the bedlam inside Mike's. A much smaller shop, Modern doesn't have the extensive selection of Mike's, either. But what it does, it does expertly--the family-owned bakery has been churning out crispy Florentines, chewy torrone, and (of course) much-lauded cannoli for three generations.
And it shows. Modern's cannoli are smaller and more delicate than Mike's; the crust doesn't hold together quite as well, but it's drier and very flaky, closer to a pastry than Mike's almost cookie-like density. The filling is equally light, and not as overwhelmingly sweet, allowing the fresh ricotta taste to come through. Unlike Mike's, it isn't perfectly smooth; tiny ricotta curds remain. But I like a bit of texture in my cannoli, the way I like a bit of pulp in my orange juice--maintaining the integrity of the ingredients, rather than pulverizing them beyond recognition.
Furthermore, Modern fills each cannolo on the spot. The pastry case holds only unfilled cannoli pastry--with each order, the shell is run back to the kitchen, piped full of ricotta, and handed to you fresh. The crust therefore stays crispy and dry, standing up against the creamy filling rather than soaking it in.
Modern Pastry Shop
This was a tough call. There's no question that both Mike's and Modern know their pastry. If I were taking a six-year-old for his first cannolo, I'd probably take him to Mike's. And if I wanted to dazzle an out-of-town visitor with a uniquely North End spectacle, I'd probably choose Mike's, too. But if I went back for a dozen cannoli, I'd choose Modern. With a crispier shell and a filling that tastes of sweet ricotta--not just sweet--I consider theirs the superior pastry.
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