The Pastry Kings of Hanover Street
Boston’s North End is one of the most iconic Italian neighborhoods in the country. Crowded, confusing, and cliché, it provides a small glimpse of what Italian streets, sidewalks, and businesses are all about. The institution which has represented the heart and soul of the North End for many years (since the 1920s) has been Mike’s Pastry Shop, located at 300 Hanover Street. Long before I even came to Tufts, I had friends from around the city raving about the decadent cannoli that this place is widely known for. So when I finally took the trip through the meter-wide alleyways and century-old houses and business and saw the huge line snaking the length of the block, I thought to myself, “This has to be the place.” However, my mind wasn’t made up on the venue from which I should try the “real-deal” Italian dessert. Modern Pastry Shop, an up and coming bakery located just a few blocks south from Mike’s , had a beautiful window full of sweet-smelling cakes, panettone (a sweet raisin bread native to Italy usually eaten around the holidays). Not very thrilled about having to wait in line at Mike’s, I strolled down to 257 Hanover Street and asked them for their best cannoli. An Italian-accented young lady gave me a sly smile and proceeded to take an empty shelled crispy golden brown delicacy from a jar on the counter. Curiously, there were only three options of filling from which to choose from—chocolate, vanilla, or plain ricotta. I was craving something rich and sweet, so I chose the chocolate.
The cradle of goodness was handed to me in a little white paper box with Modern Pastry Shop written in red ink on top, stringed together with striped ribbon. When I finally unwrapped my own personalized package, I felt bad breaking the cannoli because the shell was so perfectly round and wafer-like. However, once I did, I did not hear a loud crunch or anything. Tasting more like a chocolate filled wafer than a cannoli, the Modern Pastry Shop’s version of the famed Italian dessert lacked the depth of flavor, the ricotta filling, and the right texture on the shell to be labeled a success. I was fairly disappointed in how little this dessert resembled a cannoli. I did not want this trend of under-achieving expectations continue, so with reloaded spirits, I headed back up Hanover Street to the long line of anxious customers waiting to get into Mike’s. The line moved quickly, and included three, if not four generations of patrons, some speaking Italian; others, English. The outside of Mike’s includes a huge modern yellow sign with a large crown atop it. Obviously, this must be a very well-respected venue based on how excited everyone seemed to be to finally get a whiff of that bakery smell that was leaking out through the front doors. My first time entering through those doors was an experience like no other. The walls are covered in a shiny silver lining, combined with the antique-shop styled wooden cabinets that used to hold cups, and other glassware. Lining the other wall were a couple of round tables, and a few freezers with cakes of various shapes and colors. An iconoclastic 21st century business, for sure. And then I saw the cannoli. Lots and lots of cannoli. The centerpiece of this 80-year old operation, the cannoli at Mike’s could be found in over a dozen flavors, some of which include amaretto, pistachio, and espresso (my personal favorite). Of course, there were other delicacies, like Italian cookies and biscotti, cupcakes and croissants. But the cannoli was by far the most popular item, as far as I could tell. This is why the line starts outside the door. When I finally got to the front, a casually-dressed woman in a very rapid tone asked me for my order. Hesitation was frowned upon. So I pointed to the trays of cannoli and loudly said, “One espresso please.” Everywhere but Mike’s, that would usually sound like a cup of espresso coffee. But here, it meant the rich espresso –flavored ricotta cannoli, a giant shell overflowing with sweet cheese. She placed it in the middle of a similar white paper box with Mike’s Pastry’s logo and some string that was tied through a loom that hid itself in a bucket hanging from the ceiling. These women are seasoned veterans of tying boxes. So I hurried outside in anticipation of eating this monster. (I mean it, this cannoli is the biggest cannoli you will ever eat and, inevitably, feel bad about afterwards) The ceremonial first bite was exquisite. If you are a fan of coffee, this is a masterpiece you have to try. A coffee-lover myself, I never tasted anything quite so coffee-like that wasn’t coffee. As smooth as butter, the ricotta had the right amount of sweet to not overpower your taste buds. The shell is crispy, albeit a bit too crumbly for my taste. A truly exceptional dessert.
I came to Hanover Street to try the best cannoli in the city of Boston, but I left knowing for sure that the best cannoli I will probably ever eat in the United States came from Mike’s. Modern Pastry Shop is a formidable bakery with some delicious desserts, but they are not known for anything in particular, like Mike’s is for its cannoli. Mike’s Pastry is truly the king of Hanover Street, and of cannoli-making. If you do live in the Boston area and have $3.50 to spend on something remarkable, Mike’s should be the number one destination on that list.