Sunday, December 26, 2004

In remembrance of a cream-filled pastry

Consider, for a moment, the humble cannoli.

When I was growing up, in New York and suburban New Jersey, I don't remember giving much thought to cannoli. Unlike, say, shrimp cocktail, or black-and-white cookies, cannoli did not loom large in my pantheon of treats. We weren't Italian; we didn't eat it regularly; we didn't have any favorite place to get cannoli. It was just a part of the landscape.

The summer I turned eighteen, I worked in lower Manhattan (near what is now Ground Zero) as a sub-underling at the Federal Court House. The job consisted mainly of filing loose-leaf updates to law journals. It was boring and isolated, and the pay was pretty bad. Also, I was always late to work, partly because I never got used to how slow the elevators were, and so I constantly felt guilty and anxious.

But in the plaza outside the Federal Court House building there was a sort of outdoor food court, with stalls set up so office workers could buy quick lunches and snacks of any kind. And, since most days I hadn't had a chance to eat anything before getting to work, I usually bought a cannoli to eat in the elevator for breakfast.

A cannoli. For breakfast. For a dollar. Almost every day that summer. And I never gave it a second thought. It was like having, I dunno, a Pop Tart. Only better. That was how much I took cannolis for granted.

One day, when I'd been in Seattle for a year or two, I was lying in my studio apartment reading a book set in New York City (this one, I think). At one point, one character suggested to another that they go get a cannoli. I put down the book and thought, "a cannoli! I haven't had one of those for years! I'd like a cannoli!"

So began my Quest for Cannoli. And an arduous quest it was.

Because, it turns out, Seattle's Italian neighborhoods were destroyed before I was even born, torn down to make room for the interstate that runs like a scar down the middle of our city. Most of the Italian restaurants in range were not the unpretentious, spaghetti-and-meatballs, red-vinyl-checked-tablecloth joints of my youth, but upscale, carmelized-onion-sauce-laden yuppie bistros. And not only were they way too expensive for me, but they didn't have cannoli.

The pastry became more than an unattainable dessert: it was a personal symbol for the many things I'd taken for granted on the East Coast (rapid public transportation, ethnic neighborhoods, late-night takeout restaurants, to name a few) that either didn't exist in my new home or were so radically altered as to be unrecognizable. (The Zero Boss has written a lovely essay about a similar East-coast-to-Seattle epiphany, but he's less whiny more gracious about it than I was.)

When RW and I got together, she joined me in my search. We would accost innocent maitre d's at posh Italian places, asking if they had cannoli. Almost invariably, the answer was, "No, no cannoli, but we have some excellent tiramisu. Would you ladies like a table for two?"

Tiramisu! Not the same thing at all. We'd stomp out and go for Thai food instead. (That, for some reason, you can get in Seattle. On every street corner, even. And it's very good! But it's not cannoli.)

We began plans to launch a website, The site was to serve as a record of our search: we would list all the restaurants where we had tried and failed to find the dessert on a "Cannoli Wall of Shame," and review any place that actually offered the stuff. We also envisioned as the focal point for an "Alice's Restaurant"-type mass movement, wherein thousands of people would storm their local Italian joints, singly and in groups, ask the eponymous question, and walk out upon hearing a negative. We figured it wouldn't take long before some enterprising restauranteur caved to popular demand.

When we had a baby, this scheme, like any visions of less-silly social activism, fell by the wayside. A year or two ago, on a rare grownups-only date, we went to a little Italian place not far from our house and were thrilled to see my long-lost cannoli listed on the Desserts menu. We ordered it, and it was good. But it didn't change my stubborn sense that, whatever its amenities, Seattle lacked certain fundamentals.

All this flooded into my mind this afternoon, when the six of us (me, RW, Mermaid Girl, Baby Cousin Little Bear, and her parents) strolled into town for pizza. This is a medium-ish college town in Florida, with a downtown two blocks long; it's a nice enough place to live, but no one would mistake it for a metropolis. The pizza joint had no maitre d's, no waiters even. My brother ordered the pizza and slung it over to our linoleum-topped table.

As we dug in, RW gasped and pointed at the menu, which was displayed in plastic letters above the counter. There, taped below the lists of toppings and soft drinks, was a crudely lettered cardboard sign, an afterthought, barely important enough to mention: "Cannoli--$2.50."

"Oh," said my sister-in-law, "there are about three places in walking distance where we can get cannoli."

Now I know for sure: we might be on the western coast of Florida, but we're back East at last.


Blogger Carrie said...

I forgot about cannolis. How did I forget about cannolis? They have to be available in the Midwest, especially in a town full of spaghetti houses, right? Now I know what I'll be doing for my birthday...

9:23 AM  
Blogger Douglas said...

I'm an East-coast transplant living in Seattle and desperate for a good cannoli. Is there any hope for me?

9:02 PM  
Blogger amberelektron said...

i enjoyed this very much... found it on my google search for 'sfogiatella' (cream-filled clam-shaped pastry). it being 2008 now, I wonder if Seattle still lacks cannoli?

2:02 PM  

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