On many nights and weekends in Boston's North End, customers line up outside of Modern Pastry on Hanover Street. About a block down the street, a crowd also forms at Mike's Pastry.
Lots of those customers are waiting to sink their teeth into a cannoli and all of its crunchy and creamy yumminess.
When they take that bite for the first time, it's "a holy cannoli moment," says Bobby Agrippino, who runs food tours in the North End and has introduced lots of people to the cannoli — which hails from Sicily. (And yes, technically cannoli is the plural form of the word. In Italian, cannolo is the singular form! But we'll stick with the way most people say it around here.)
A quick Google search, or skim of a Boston guide book, will tell you there are three major bakeries making cannolis in the North End: Mike's, Modern and Bova's. There are, of course, other options that fly a little under the radar.
We didn't set out to declare which shop makes the best cannoli, but we did want to see what goes into making Boston’s cannolis the cream of the crop.
So we visited a couple of the most venerated cannoli makers in the North End. Their shops have served generations of Italian-Americans and other Bostonians, along with legions of tourists.
First, Jojo Bova of Bova’s Bakery. His great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, started the establishment in 1926. A long line of family members have had a hand in running the place.
“So, I'm Jojo. My dad is Joe. His father was Big Joe," Bova says, explaining his family's penchant for handing down names. "My cousin Joey, my cousin Joe..."
The family also hands down recipes. Bova's been cooking here since he was a little kid — more than 30 years ago.
“When I was 4 and 5, I was rolling braids and hamburger buns ... on a milk crate," he says.
Bova takes us into the kitchen in back — and it’s a throwback. He points out an oven that's an original fixture, nearly a century old.
The place is decidedly not fancy or contemporary. White paper signs written in black Sharpie identify the treats inside the old display cases.
Bova works as the head baker on the overnight shift. While he’s in the back, customers crowd the storefront. The place is open 24/7. So he has to keep the display cases full of all sorts of luscious sweets.
But the specialty of the house is the Florentine cannoli. It’s made with a thin, lace-like Florentine cookie as the shell. The recipe for the shells is fairly simple.
"It's basically almond brittle," Bova says. "It's sugar, honey, almonds, cream."
And butter. You can't forget the butter — lots of it. Bova hand cuts each chunk of dough and pummels it with his palm to make a patty.
"It may be tedious, but it’s my life," he says, agreeing, when asked, that it's a point of pride for him.
He slides a tray of patties into a 400-degree oven, then a few minutes later, pulls out the baked flat shells. They're just pliable enough to peel off the pan. Bova picks up a tool of the cannoli trade — a 5- or 6-inch wooden peg. He wraps a wafer around the peg to make the perfectly formed tube.
The shells will get loaded up with traditional sweet ricotta cannoli filling.
The Florentines are the only cannoli shells Bova’s Bakery makes; and they make a lot of them. Bova says he made 425 on a recent Friday night, and those were gone within 24 hours.
Bova's gets its traditional cannoli shells from a Boston-area wholesaler. The bakery doesn't have the necessary equipment to make its own — a fryolator — and couldn't keep up with the demand, Bova and his mother say. (Modern Pastry also gets its traditional cannoli shells from an outside vendor, but they're imported all the way from Italy.)
When it comes to traditional, non-Florentine cannoli shells, Bova's used to only fill them with sweet ricotta filling, Bavarian cream, or chocolate Bavarian cream. But these days, they've gotten into the flavor frenzy that's taken over everything from coffee to cupcakes.
Bova rattles off some of the non-traditional cannoli varieties his bakery makes: “Creme brulee, Nutella, salted caramel, Oreo. ... Cappuccino, peanut butter, pistachio.”
Asked if his ancestors would turn up their noses at such flavors, Bova responds, "No. No. If they seen how much money we were making, no way.”
Back Bay resident Stevey Davis has sampled cannolis from all of the North End bakeries, and she has her favorite.
"I think Bova's is the best. The flavor — I don't know what it is, but it just tasted really good, Davis says. "I had the creme brulee one. I’ve had it multiple times now. I've even been to Italy recently, and I still love Bova's."
But cannoli connoisseurs have different perspectives on what's most important when judging the pastries.
“You’re not gonna see a cannoli as big as Mike’s [Pastry's]," says food tour operator Bobby Agrippino. "You're not gonna get a cannoli shell like Mike's."
We meet Suman Prasad, of Boston, as she's buying dessert at Mike's.
“I'm going to talk to you from a non-Italian perspective," she says. “I think the cannoli itself, if it's light and flaky, that's a good cannoli to me. You know, I don't like it super, super hard and dense.”
Her friend, Cheryl Kaunfer, of Wrentham, comes at it from a different viewpoint. She says she's 100% Italian.
“There's a very high bar in a cannoli. A cannoli must have a high percentage of fat. We say 'rigott,' but other people say ricotta," Kaunfer says. "And the shell must be a certain color brown, like tan. And the shell must be really hard and never, ever soggy. And therefore, the cannoli must always be stuffed right in front of you and served immediately. Otherwise, eh? We don't want it."
That's how it's done at Mike's. When a customer places an order, an employee whisks the hand-written paper order slip into the back kitchen, where another worker fills the cannoli on the spot. Then the sales clerk adds the final touch if the customer wants it: a snow flurry's dusting of powdered sugar on top.
Mike’s is the only one of the big three cannoli sellers in Boston’s North End that makes its own traditional shells. The bakery churns them out all day, six days a week, to supply the North End shop, three other Mike's locations and online gift box orders. Every week that adds up to about 5,000 shells.
Angelo Papa is the manager of Mike's Pastry. He's the stepson of the late Michael Mercogliano, the immigrant who founded the bakery in 1946. Papa has been at the bakery for more than 40 years.
Papa says he tries to run Mike’s and make pastries just like his stepdad did decades ago.
"I take it very personally, and I take pride in keeping it the same as much as possible," he says. "If not the flair of the store or the personnel of the store, but the way we make the stuff. … I could walk in here tomorrow morning [in] 2023, and I would feel like I walked in here in 1981.”
In the big kitchen of the Hanover Street bakery, there’s a team of older folks around a big table, silently at work. The women wear hair nets, the men baseball hats; all of them wear aprons whitened by flour.
They have a giant rolling pin that cuts ovals of very thin dough, which will become cannoli shells. They wrap the ovals around well-used wooden pegs, just like at Bova’s. Then a worker drops trays of 50 raw dough shells into a big fryer for a few minutes, before removing them to cool on trays.
Mike’s has 19 cannoli varieties on the menu. They make up 80% of the bakery's sales.
"And my cannoli people have warned me that if I actually come up with one more flavor, they're going on strike," Papa jokes.
"I can't say what makes mine special, he says. "I mean, I only do it the way I know how to do it — the way Mike taught me how to do it. And if people buy it, great. If they like it, great. ... It seems to be working out for us, so I think we'll continue on."
This segment aired on December 21, 2023.