Once I fell in love with a cannoli.
It was my gateway food and I progressed quickly to all sorts of Italian specialties: gnocchi, involtini, risotto. This cannoli wasn’t the sad gummy shelled cloyingly sweet office-cookie-tray style item that had me thinking I was “just not a cannoli person”. It had a shell that crackled and crunched in delicate flakes and tasted like fresh oil. The filling was hand-spooned-in a bit at a time and was the lightest ricotta with just a hint of sweetness. It tasted of cheese not sugar. The chef was a wizened old Italian woman named Desanka who, with her husband Gennaro, sold only cannoli and espresso at an 8 seat café on 9th street in Philadelphia’s Italian Market. At Christmas they also made pizzelles. Desanka and her husband were resolute that cannoli should only be made with fresh crisp shells and filled to order. They derided pastry shops in the market who had pre-filled cannoli in cases, cold and stale tasting. Gennaro just shook his head and said in a thick Italian accent “Those. Are Not. Cannoli.” Other than that he only spoke Italian – expressively and as though I understood everything he said.
After a while the cannoli were beside the point. I learned that Desanka and her husband owned a restaurant for years and they kept the café just for something to do. After many visits where my mom and I would sip espresso and ask questions about the shop and about Italian food in general Desanka started inviting us back to the kitchen. We watched her make the cannoli and filling (a recipe I have since, tragically lost) and were given bites of whatever was on the stove. Gennaro once made me simple sautéed mushrooms with lemon juice that I still think about.
On one trip Desanka mentioned that she taught cooking classes. I had moved home for grad school and my mom and I started immediately. I remember rolling gnocchi at her table, chatting away with the 2 other people in class – there were just 4 of us – while Desanka critiqued our technique and marveled at my mom’s innate ability to make perfect little spheres each time. “It takes a little time,” she would say “but it is worth it.” By the end of the semester I had fallen in love with Desanka, Gennaro, and Italian cooking. I’ve never found another cannoli like Desanka’s but I don’t try too hard. I savor the memories and look in unexpected places for cooks that show an attention to detail, a fierce loyalty to taste and quality, and a love of sharing food.