"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
I take my ticket from the red ticket dispenser and look around.
It's bright and white inside the bakery and smells of citrus and sugar. There are fake wedding cakes on display and some birthday cakes, too, and a few café tables. There are shelves of homemade torrone and containers of candied fruits. Glass display cases flank each wall.
I raise my hand showing my ticket.
"What can I get you, hon?" The woman behind the counter asks me.
She smiles in a way that says, "You're familiar to me." So familiar that she moves towards the pastry I want before I ask.
I've been to Moio's many times before. Everyone is friendly and I like being there. Maybe she remembers me.
"I'll take two pasticiott, a Napoleon, a slice of rum cake, and a half and half cannoli, please."
I pronounce the word "pasticiotti," "pasticiott," cutting off the end like my grandparents did.
"Sure, hon," she says.
She grabs a white cardboard box and begins to fill it with Italian goodies; first the Napoleon and rum cake, and then the pasticiotti. She walks to the other end of the counter and grabs a crispy cannoli shell from a bin of crispy cannoli shells. She pipes one side with regular sweetened ricotta and the other side with chocolate ricotta.
The lady behind the counter closes the box. She slides the box under a machine that mechanically ties it with twine.
"You goin' right home? It's hot out there and these need to be refrigerated right away."
"I'm taking them to my piano teacher, Frank,” I say. "He lives a little far from here but it's on my way. He used to buy pastry all the time when your shop was on the avenue."
The 'avenue' was Larimer Avenue when Larimer Avenue was Little Italy proper and that was long ago.
I tell the lady behind the counter about Frank - on purpose. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because I think everyone should know about Frank, or because my family, like so many Italians around here, started their American lives on the avenue. Maybe I wanted her to know we shared that history.
"Ah, I bet he knew my dad then," she says and gestures to the painting on the wall. Behind her hangs a large portrait of a man, with tan skin, dark hair, mustache, and wearing a chef's coat.
"I bet he did," I say.
"That'll be sixteen-o-five, " she says.
But I already knew that.
She hands me the box. I slip my finger under the twine and proudly walk out.
Frank and I sit down at his kitchen table. He opens the box and goes for the cannoli first. He takes a bite and grins with approval.
"My life changed when I went to Larimer Avenue," Frank says.
Frank lived on Lincoln Avenue, a few blocks away. He lived with his sisters, his immigrant parents and grandfather, the train tracks in his backyard.
"When I was a little boy, my dad would take me to Moios after church. He didn't like me being around, we never got along, but on account of my mom, he took me with him. He always bought me a cookie or something. I didn't know about the good stuff until I started playing in clubs as a teenager."
Frank's a legendary jazz pianist and has been playing professionally for nearly seven decades. He went to Westinghouse High School where other famous jazz pianist honed their chops: Ahmad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Dakota Staton, and others.
Still in school, Frank played at Genovese Cocktail Lounge from 9-2 am, six nights a week. The club owner, Bill Genovese, was a big-time Mafioso and took a liking to Frank. Each week, Bill gave Frank a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of ginger ale.
"I'm gonna call you kitten because you are too young to be a cat," Bill said.
Frank doesn't drink. He'd give the whiskey to his bandmates opting for a sweeter, cream-filled vice.
"I would have a good Italian meal at the Meadow Grill and then walk next store to Moio's to get some cannoli before my gig," Frank says.
"Oh, and the girls. The girls would come from everywhere to meet up with us Italian boys, especially the Polish girls. They loved us."
Larimer Avenue was once an Italian community filled with shops, delis, restaurants, churches, and a ton of places to hear live music. Frank said he played in forty-eight clubs in East Liberty alone.
Now there's none.
When I go to my piano lesson, I often bring Frank dinner, a good Italian meal, and he often has wine and my favorite cookies waiting for me.
Frank’s kitchen is lit like a nightclub. We eat and talk and drink coffee. Frank shares bygone stories of big bands, women, and gangster-run cabarets, and I share cannoli.
This week I try my hand at making cannoli, homemade. I watch as Frank picks up the cannoli and takes his first bite. I want it to taste as good as when he took his first bite all those years ago. And then Frank gives me the best compliment ever."
"Mmm," he says. "You should get a gig at Moios."
Frank's reaction to my homemade cannoli:
A big thanks to Nate Mallick, a fellow cook, for helping me perfect this recipe. He makes exquisite pasty and cannoli. Thanks Nate!
- cannoli tubes
- Deep-fry thermometer
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 TBSP granulated sugar
- ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- 3 TBSP chilled butter, cubed
- 1 large egg
- 3 TBSP chilled Marsala wine
- 1 egg white ( to seal shells)
- 48 ounces Canola oil (for frying)
- 15 ounces ricotta cheese
- 2 tsp honey
- 2 TBSP powdered sugar
- 2 TBSP candied orange peel
Candied Orange Peel
- the peel of two medium-sized oranges
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup water, plus more for blanching
To Make the Cannoli Shells
- Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt together in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until it resembles small pebbles. Add the egg and chilled wine and pulse until the dough just comes together. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead until smooth (about 5 minutes). Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Cut the ball of dough into 8 equal-sized pieces. Flatten the dough with your hands and then lightly coat each side with flour. Roll the dough through a pasta machine set to the thickest setting. Change the setting to the next thickness and roll the dough through again. Repeat until you roll the dough through the thinnest setting. (I like my shells really thin, but you can decide your own thickness.) If the dough starts to stick, add a little more flour.
- Using a 4-inch round cookie cutter, cut circles from the dough, repeat. Place the egg white in a small bowl and set aside. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees F. Line a large plate with paper towels. Loosely wrap the dough around the cannoli tube. Dab the edge with egg white, pull the other end of the dough over the top, and gently press down to seal. Place the wrapped cannoli shells in the refrigerator as you work.
- Pour enough oil to fill a dutch oven about halfway full. You want the shells to be fully immersed and floating in the oil. To make sure the oil is at the right temperature, drop a scrap of dough of the same thickness in the oil. Observe how it fries and adjust the heat if needed. Use a thermometer to make sure the oil stays around 350 -380 degrees F.
- Using metal tongs, carefully lower the dough into the oil and fry until golden brown (about a minute or two), turning them as they fry. If they touch the bottom of the pot they tend to burn in that spot. I like to fry only one or two shells at a time because they fry extremely fast and can burn quickly. Remove the shells with the tongs and transfer them to the paper towel-lined plate to cool.
To Make the Filling
- To make the filling, combine the ricotta, honey, powdered sugar, and candied orange peel in a bowl and stir well. Fill a gallon-sized ziplock bag with the filling. Seal the top and snip one of the bottom corners (about ½ inch). Push all the filling downward to remove any air pockets. Twist the bag and get ready to pipe.
- When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the cannoli tubes, and repeat with the remaining dough in batches until all shells have been fried. Remove the shells from the molds. Once shells are completely cool, pipe in ricotta filling to order. Dip ends of cooled shells in melted mini chocolate chips or chopped pistachios and serve immediately.
To Make Candied Orange Peel
- Fill a medium pot with water and bring it to a boil. Peel the skin of an orange in strips and blanch them in boiling water for about one minute. Strain the orange peels and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
- Meanwhile, in another pot, add 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water. Heat liquid over medium-high heat. Once the sugar melts, add the drained orange peels and gently boil for 30 minutes. Be careful that the heat isn't too high or the liquid will burn. Remove the peels and set them on a plate or some wax paper to cool completely.