Because who doesn’t love cannoli?
Hailing from the island of Sicily; cannoli — the crispy tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough filled with fresh sheep’s ricotta cream and often sprinkled with powdered sugar — are arguably Italy’s most famous dessert. While there are many theories on the pastry’s origins, one of the most popular dates back to 1000 AD with the Arab rule of the Sicilian city of Caltanisetta. Legend has it that a harem of women created the phallic-looking dessert in recognition of their emir’s prowess. While the treat’s origins have spawned possibilities ranging from concubines, nuns, and fertility symbols during Carnival, one fact remains constant: cannoli is a Sicilian staple and a source of pride for its island inhabitants.
In Italian, the singular version of the dessert is “cannolo” while the plural is “cannoli.” Served plain or topped on both sides with pistachio granules, dark chocolate chips, or candied fruit, the Sicilian treat has found particular fame in the United States, being immortalized in Italian American culture by Sicilian immigrants to cities such as New York and Boston.
In Boston, home to one of the country’s most vibrant Little Italy, cannoli are everywhere. But there is an art to finding fresh ones, meaning shells that are filled to order. Pro tip: the more elaborate the garnishes and the flavors, the more likely it has been filled in advance and left to sit behind a display case, which turns the cannoli shell soggy. While the dessert’s fillings and toppings have changed over time with its numerous interactions with various cultures, its tubular shape, and its delicious heritage have remained untouched. Below is a brief guide to the best cannoli in Boston.
Eataly is a massive Italian dining emporium on Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It is composed of a number of eateries, food carts, seafood markets, and groceries selling products mostly imported from Italy. The chain first started in Italy and then spread to American cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago. Eataly Boston offers clients a “cannoli bar” where they serve fresh, authentic Sicilian cannoli. Their classic cannoli, filled with plain ricotta and topped with candied orange, cost $3.80 while their chocolate chip cannoli comes served with your choice of toppings for $4.60. Patrons can choose up to two toppings from chocolate chips, pistachio di Bronte from Sicilia, toasted hazelnuts from Piemonte, candied orange, and toasted almonds. Their handmade, zero trans fats and no preservatives cannoli shells are sourced from Golden Cannoli, an Italian American family company from Chelsea, MA. Their ricotta is from Calabro, a family-owned and operated cheese company from Connecticut that uses milk sourced from Vermont.
Modern Pastry is one of the many intergenerational family-owned bakeries in the North End, Boston’s Little Italy. The cash-only, no-frills bakery was established in 1930 on Hanover Street by the Picariello family and makes everything from multi-tiered cakes and torrone to macaroons and of course, cannoli. Modern Pastry offers clients the chance to BYOC (build your own cannoli), meaning that they are filled to order. Patrons can choose between plain and chocolate-dipped shells, ricotta, whipped cream, chantilly cream (vanilla custard and whipped cream), and vanilla or custard fillings and chocolate chips, pistachios, or almond slices as toppings. They also offer gluten-free shells. Prices start at $4.50 for plain cannoli (with a 50 cents surcharge for toppings and chocolate shells) and $2.75 for plain mini cannoli. Modern Pastry has an additional location in Medford, MA.
Established in 1929, Caffé Vittoria, located on Hanover Street, is Boston’s first Italian cafe. The charming cash-only cafe, which boasts an old-school coffee machine, prides itself on serving traditional Italian pastries like biscotti, ricotta pie, sfogliatella, and more. They are also known for their various coffees, signature cocktails, and selection of Italian liqueurs. Their cannoli pair well with a warm cappuccino and are made in-house and filled to order. Clients can choose between a plain or a chocolate-dipped shell, and from chocolate chips and pistachio toppings for $4.28.
Located on Salem Street in the North End, Bova’s Bakery is among the unique bakeries in the neighborhood for one reason – it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is not uncommon to see the bakery bustling in the early morning hours with late-night revelers looking to snack on something sweet or savory. The bakery, which opened in 1932, sells everything from fruit pies, sfogliatella, and Italian butter cookies to homemade Italian bread, subs, and calzones. Their cannoli shells are homemade and filled to order. Clients can choose between regular, oreo, pistachio, or crème brûlée fillings and between a regular, chocolate dipped, or Florentine shell. All cannoli cost $5 while those with a Florentine shell, made with honey and almonds, cost $7. (Note: It is cash only for purchases under $10)
Mike’s Pastry is arguably the most famous bakery in Boston. Founded in 1946 on Hanover Street by Michael Mercogliano, the family-run bakery offers every flavor and variation of cannoli found under the sun. For $5, clients can choose from the regular, mint chip, pecan caramel, hazelnut, limoncello, Nutella, strawberry cannoli, and more. The bakery also offers a number of other pastry options including cheesecakes, cookies, and donuts. Mike’s Pastry recently partnered with Harpoon Brewery for a limited-time Mike’s Pastry Cannoli Stout Beer that was sold at various liquor stores throughout the city. The bakery has additional locations in other Massachusetts cities like Cambridge and Somerville.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, currently pursuing her master's in journalism at New York University (NYU). In the past, her work on culture, travel and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, and The Christian Science Monitor. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.