When we were planning our journey to eat our way through Boston’s North End, we knew we had to get some cannoli – a Sicilian pastry consisting of a rolled up tube of fried pastry dough with a (traditionally) ricotta-based filling. The local debate is pretty heated, we hear, with Mike’s Pastry, Modern, and Maria’s Pastry Shop all garnering an impressive fan base. We were too stuffed to try all three, but here are our findings during our visits to Mike’s Pastry and Maria’s Pastry Shop. At Maria’s, we even tried a few other non-cannoli Italian pastries!
One of our first stops when we arrived in Boston (after checking into our hotel and standing en queue for dinner at Giacomo’s) was at Mike’s Pastry. Just about everyone in the area and visiting the area has heard of Mike’s. The throngs of waiting patrons spilling out the doors and into the sidewalk was indicative of just how popular their cannoli are.
Their menu features a variety of 17 flavors of il cannolo from the traditional plain ricotta to America’s favorite cookie – the iconic Oreo. There’s something for everyone seems to be the unspoken motto here.
To handle the sheer volume of customers, the cannoli here are pre-filled and displayed in glass cases for your gawking pleasure, just in case you have trouble picking just one flavor. It was almost overwhelming, and this does not even take into account their many other pastries including cakes, cookies, Italian favorites, and American classics.
The line moves quickly as the women behind the counter swiftly pack up your selection of sweet treats into their white boxes, tied up with string suspended from above. Walking through the North End, especially along Hanover Street, you are sure to spot passersby toting these boxes filled with goodies.
I selected the limoncello cannolo (one cannolo, two cannoli). I love to bake with limoncello (and between you and me, it’s the critical ingredient to shaking up an excellent lemon drop martini), so I was eager to try this cream filling laced with lemony goodness. The pastry dough managed to stay crunchy and cracked with each bite, while the cream inside was packed with flavor from both the limoncello and the ricotta.
Martin had his eye on the espresso flavor since he first set foot in Mike’s. Decorated with teeny-tiny chocolate chips and dusted with cocoa powder, the espresso and ricotta combination worked well. I was unable to finish my cannolo but he enjoyed his so much that he polished it off with minimal effort.
The next day, we stopped by Maria’s Pastry Shop. We learned about this place through Andrew Zimmern’s episode of Bizarre Food America – Boston, and we knew we just had to check it out. Maria’s is situated on Cross Street just across from the park, a little off the beaten path.
We admired the display cases of beautifully painted marzipan “fruit” and colorful cookies in all shapes and sizes and hues. Finally, we approached Grandma Filomina and mentioned that we had seen her on TV. She was enthusiastic to show off the pastries that AZ had sampled, and Martin replied with a cool and confident, “We’ll take one of each!”
As she took the pastry shells into the kitchen to be filled, we couldn’t help but stare in awe at the stunning layers of the sfogliatelle shell. We later learned that sfogliatelle means “many layers” or “many leaves,” a fitting name for the intricacy of the clam shell shape.
As if a clam weren’t enough, Italian-Americans also created a spin-off of the sfogliatelle in the form of a giant lobster tail. See the resemblance? We grabbed one of these, along with….
Of course, a cannolo! Maria’s had rows and rows of cannoli shells in both plain and chocolate-dipped form, lined up on a pastry rack waiting to be filled-to-order.
While we waited for our three pastries to be filled and boxed up, we were surprised to meet a little furry feline who wandered in through the front door. We thought it was a stray that had come to visit but a woman from the bakery beckoned it to come inside and stay inside. Apparently it belongs at Maria’s and had gone on an adventure!
It was a beautiful day outside, so we bid farewell to Maria’s and took our pastries out to the park. The cannolo was pumped to the brim with fluffy sweet ricotta and was delicious in its simplicity. The menu boasts that it had been awarded “Best of Boston” for its cannoli and we could see why!
Oh my goodness. We had no idea how to eat this. The lobster tail is described on Maria’s menu as a “flaky pastry shell filled with a vanilla mousse cream – big enough to share.” It was bigger than my hand, dare I say it was bigger than my head! Beautiful crispy flakes of pastry dough gave way to a delicately sweet vanilla cream that was a welcome change from all the ricotta indulgence. Definitely grab one (or two or three) of your friends to join in if you’re planning to get this!
And last but certainly not least, my favorite of them all – Maria’s sfogliatelle. After the initial unbelievably flaky crunch, the doughy middle held a wonderful orange flavor that just made my day. This “traditional Neopolitan sweet” is “filled with cheese, semolina flour and citrus fruit” — the hint of orange really makes this pastry unique.
There’s no shortage of good eats when you visit the North End, but if you’re craving something sweet, I definitely recommend the sfogliatelle at Maria’s Pastry Shop. I know this started out as the battle of the cannoli but after sampling the ones at Mike’s, Modern, and Maria’s, I hope you’ll save room to try some of the North End’s lesser-known Italian pastries. After all, there’s always room for dessert!
Check out Mike’s Pastry: mikespastry.com
300 Hanover St
Boston, MA 02113
See their Yelp reviews here!
Check out Maria’s Pastry Shop: mariaspastry.com
46 Cross St
Boston, MA 02113
See their Yelp reviews here!