Saturday, November 10, 2007

food to warm cold fingers: an excursion to the north end

This story begins with a pair of gloves.

I owned the same pair of black leather gloves for seven years. They were warm, they were comfortable, and the leather had reached that perfect stage of broken-in-but-not-yet-worn-out. And then they vanished sometime towards the end of winter last year. Their disappearance peeved me deeply, but the rest of the winter was mild, so I didn't replace them.

And then I forgot about not replacing them. Which was how I ended up wearing the fingerless gloves I made for a costume party (thrift store gloves with the fingers cut off) out on another excursion with Bella this morning - this time to the North End.

Though Bella had an easy time of luring me out into the cold - the magic words were, I believe, "fresh cannoli" - she had her work cut out trying to keep me there. As much as I wanted to watch butchers make hand-ground sausage and read the menus posted in the window of every single restaurant we passed, I just couldn't concentrate. By the time we reached Bova's Bakery, a favorite of Bella's, my stomach was barely a blip on my radar. Thawing out my fingers had become a far more pressing concern.

Bova's is a large bakery, and its glass cases are filled with all sorts of pastries and cookies, but nothing really jumped out at me until I glanced in the back, and saw one of the bakers arranging calzones fresh from the oven. Both my fingers and my stomach rejoiced: I could have an early lunch, and it would keep my hands warm, too.

The calzones at Bova's are enormous. The dough is wrapped in such a way that the fillings peek out temptingly: ham and spinach, meatballs in red sauce, breaded chicken and broccoli, and various others. I didn't want anything too heavy (I had to leave room for cannoli), so I decided on a calzone stuffed with asparagus spears, mozzarella, and just a thin slice of prosciutto. It came in a neat wrapping of greaseproof paper, accompanied by a small mountain of napkins.

Calzone firmly clutched in both hands, I followed Bella (she'd had a late breakfast, so she passed on the calzones) back out into the cold. With my fingers no longer a pressing concern, I turned my attention to my stomach. The calzone dough had a light, crusty exterior and an agreeably chewy interior. The asparagus spears in the filling were soft but not soggy, and their faintly sweet flavor contrasted nicely with the salt of the mozzarella and prosciutto.

Did I mention that the calzone was enormous? We took our time wandering over to the Modern Pastry Shop, and Bella still ended up having to wait as I finished up the last few bites. At least staring at the display in the window gave her a chance to anticipate pleasures to come: there were trays piled high with cannoli shells, sfogliatelle, and other delectable confections.

When we entered the shop, Bella spent some time peering into the case before deciding on a bar of torrone, an exquisitely sticky nougat made with egg white, sugar, and almonds. Though I did take a look, just to see what they had, I already had my mind made up. I wanted a cannoli, and a cannoli was exactly what I got.*

Once again, we headed out into the cold, and while Bella nibbled at her torrone, I bit into the cannoli and tried not to get powdered sugar all down my front. (I succeeded. Mostly.) The shell, crisp and flaky, gave way to a creamy, faintly lemony filling. It was rich without being too sweet - any sweetness came almost entirely from the powdered sugar - and just the right size.

Bella insisted that we make a stop at one more bakery, just to see it, before we called it a morning. Maria's has an enormous selection of traditional southern Italian cookies, and they make gorgeous marzipan fruits, too. I decided I'd had enough sugar for one day, but Bella ended up buying a small box of mixed cookies to snack on later.

And then we headed out once more into the cold. Macys-ward. I needed gloves.

*Yes, the singular is cannolo, if you're being a stickler for Italian grammar. But it's like ordering a croissant at Au Bon Pain by asking for a "qwa-son," when everyone in the store calls them "cross-onts."

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