Leave the Cannoli
I remember my first cannoli. It was better than the first time I had sex.
Going “all the way” at seventeen was certainly a milestone, but also messy and strangely disappointing. And not at all like what I read in Penthouse Forum. Beyond the basics, neither of us had a clue.
Not so with cannoli. That initiation came courtesy of Ferrara’s in Little Italy, the New York one. Cousin Larry played Eve to my fourteen-year-old Adam when he handed me the fateful pastry in a pink cardboard box tied with red and white string during a two-week stay at his folks’ place in the summer of ’87. I ate it on a nearby park bench with my eyes closed.
The shell was perfection, light and crisp, but not hard. It broke with the gentlest of bites without shattering. The filling: simple, slightly sweet ricotta with a few chocolate chips and a hint of vanilla. Somewhere in the background hovered the ghost of orange zest. No powdered sugar. And none of that toxic candied fruit.
Little did I know that I would spend years chasing that particular high without success, a pursuit which would ultimately break my heart.
Business and pleasure have taken me to many intriguing cities since that afternoon. From Seattle to Santa Fe, from Chicago to New Orleans to Boston’s North End. Each boasted excellent Italian restaurants featuring some subspecies of cannoli for dessert. Many were good, some very. A few simply unspeakable. But not one could approach the pastry to which I’d lost my cannoli virginity. Not even Ferrara’s could duplicate that experience when I made a long-overdue return. Despite these repeated frustrations, I couldn’t completely abandon my quest in favor of the lesser delights of tiramisus and affogatos, whether at home or abroad.
It’s been almost ten years since my younger brother, Max, turned forty, and we decided to celebrate with a brothers only trip to Italy (a lifelong dream). Just us and i genti Italiani, Renaissance art, the Hills of Tuscany, and, of course, the food. We even spent the four months prior to departure studying Italian on Rosetta Stone so we could chat up the locals like a pair of Marcello Mastroianni’s.
Our plane landed in Rome’s da Vinci Airport early one September afternoon. After spending roughly twenty-four hours recovering from jetlag, we hopped a train to Assisi, home of Saint Francis and his storied basilica. A proper stay in the capitol would be waiting for us later. We arrived at 4:15—much later than planned, having missed the express thanks to the previous night’s second bottle of celebratory Sangiovese.
The old city, situated on a slope with the basilica on the lower end and our charming hotel at the top, is connected by those twisting cobblestone streets you often find in Europe. A brief walk and watching the sun paint the sky a luminous orange as it dipped below the horizon set the stage for a truly magical evening.
On our way out the door for a late dinner, even by local standards, a French couple we had befriended during check-in raved about a restaurant off the beaten path not far from our hotel. There was no way we could ignore a recommendation like that, so we scotched our original plans, with all due respect to Rick Steves.
Trattoria Mariotto was hidden away in an impossibly narrow dead-end street. We almost missed it; the sign was so faded. “Looks closed,” groused my frowning sibling, forehead pressed against one of the glass door’s small square window panes to peer inside. He must have accidentally nudged it because we heard a click and watched the door swing open in slow motion, accompanied by a theatrical horror-movie squeak. Inside was a cozy space with about ten tables and a spacious terrace. Other than the two of us, the place seemed deserted. “Buona sera?” we called out together.
“Ciao, ciao!” answered a woman’s voice just before its owner stepped around the corner. Long, curly brown locks, light for an Italian, framed a soft oval face right out of a Botticelli. Her full lips burst into a broad smile. Then she wiped her hands on her apron and waved us in. Slim but not skinny, I could have warmed my hands by her gaze.
I couldn’t breathe or speak. We just stared at each other until she started to laugh. “Benvenuti, signori! Fratelli, no?”
Regaining my composure (a little), I confirmed that we were, indeed, brothers and asked in Italian if the restaurant was still open. She must have recognized the accent because she replied in lightly accented English, “I was about to eat supper, but you are welcome to join me if you like veal. You look so hungry, Mi chiamo Francesca.”
I do like veal but would have gladly eaten shoe leather that night.
“Piacere,” we said together, “Mille grazie.” She had barely looked at Max, who couldn’t help but mention the amorous thunderbolt that struck Michael Corleone and Apollonia in The Godfather.
We introduced ourselves, followed her onto the terrace, and sat down. It took only a minute for her to re-set the table and wheel out a simple but delicious meal: antipasti, roasted eggplant, and the tenderest veal I’ve ever had. Even the cheesy looking wine in a basket was excellent. We discussed our itinerary and life in our home city of San Francisco, which prompted a series of suggestions for the first and eager questions about the second, punctuated by her occasionally laying her hand on my arm. Did we come from a big family? Was the Golden Gate Bridge as grand as it seemed? She also inquired about the Wine Country and the Castro. “I think it is easier for gay people there.”
It wasn’t until we switched our attention to Assisi, where her family had lived for five generations, that I noticed her thigh brushing mine under the table. And she noticed me noticing. “Nonno Bruno, my grandfather, started this business after the war. Right here,” she said. “When he died, my mother took it. Now me. I still live upstairs.”
My brother eventually excused himself with a melodramatic yawn around 10:40 and reached for his wallet. “No, no, Maximiliano. Learning about you and your beautiful city has been so nice. This dinner was my pleasure.”
So, at long last, we had the trattoria to ourselves. 10:40 quickly became 11:00, then 11:45. During our conversation, which bounced back and forth between English and Italian, I actually found myself glancing furtively at her left ring finger, which was unadorned, much to my delight. Somehow, I held back on asking why she wasn’t married and began to wonder what it would be like to live in a foreign country. A midnight offer of plump, ripened figs in a fragrant wine sauce was sorely tempting. But I was beyond stuffed and stood to go. “Mi, dispiace; I can’t eat another bite,” I apologized, patting my stomach on our way to the door.
“Domani…uh…tomorrow perhaps? Something to look forward to,” she offered, giving me a kiss that, though not quite passionate, was anything but platonic, and pointing me toward our hotel. “Si, domani,” was all I could say.
Even the splendors of the Basilica di San Francesco, with its 14th-century frescos and gothic architecture, could not break through my reverie that next day. I might as well have been at the DMV. By 3:30, we were headed for a siesta when we happened by one of those gelaterias that seem designed to attract pedestrians the way carnivorous plants attract butterflies.
Thanks to the unseasonable heat, we’d been craving a cold treat, and surveyed a small mountain range of colorful gelati, surrounded by posters of Saint Francis, Pope Francis, and assorted Italian soccer heroes. A woman, youngish but well on her way to post-nuptial stoutness, shushed a boy peeking out from behind her skirt and leaned across the counter to take our orders. Explosive groans from the other side of a beaded curtain indicated a crowd somewhere back there had left her to mind the store while they watched what could only have been a big game on TV. “Prego?”
In the adjoining case, chocolates sculpted in the shapes of swans seemed to be swimming about among assorted islands of pastries. And there, amidst the bomboloneand brustengoli, were a dozen of the most divine looking cannoli. They were just asymmetrical enough, obviously homemade, their crusts, golden brown, with filling peeking out flirtatiously from either end of the pastry. Delicate dusting of chocolate shavings completed the effect. Thoughts of refreshing gelato and Francesca’s delectable goodnight kiss faded in a trice. I ordered two.
Max was waiting for me at a round table near the café window, his gelato already half-gone. “You and your cannoli,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Save me a bite if you can control yourself.” I sat down, picked one up like a religious pilgrim might handle a sacred relic, and whispered a prayer to the pagan gods of dessert.
My initial impression was that I had accidentally been given the display model. “What’s wrong? You look like you just broke a tooth,” inquired my brother.
Damp cardboard. That was all I could think of during twenty seconds of labored chewing. What filling accompanied that initial bite could only have been siphoned from a Twinkie. “Try this, Max. Am I crazy, or is this the worst cannoli you’ve ever had?”
He took a tentative half-bite, which he promptly spit out into his napkin. “Christ! I don’t think a hyena would eat this. These people can’t be Italian. Try the other one. Maybe you just got a dud.”
We didn’t want to create a diplomatic incident by demanding a refund, so I casually pretended to inspect the hanging images of Saint Francis while discretely depositing the cannoli carcasses in the wastebasket, or so I thought. Turning to re-join my brother, I almost stumbled over that shy little boy, who was staring up at me accusingly. He then ran to his mother and began tugging insistently on her apron. “Mama! Mama!”
“How do you say ‘busted’ in Italian?” asked Max as the proprietress followed her kid to the wastebasket and lifted the napkins I’d used to hide the offending pastries. No longer smiling, she stalked to our table and loomed over us, fists on hips, calling out something over her shoulder that I didn’t recognize from Rosetta Stone. Men of various ages and sizes answered the call, emerging from behind the curtain, two or three at a time until we were surrounded by what appeared to be three generations of outraged relatives (how so many fit in the back of such a small store was a mystery). Then they proceeded to take turns shouting and gesturing toward a black-and-white picture of an old lady wearing a rustic dress and headscarf whom I presumed was the family’s dearly departed matriarch and source of that ghastly recipe. By this time, Max and I were sweating bullets.
A merciful Saint Francis must have been listening because a disembodied voice suddenly bellowed “goooooooooaaaaaal!” causing the entire clan to swivel their heads toward the kitchen. Two of them even hustled back inside to watch the replay. Sensing our chance, we bolted.
There was no need to turn around to know the commotion at the back of us meant all but the most diehard soccer fans in the family were spilling out of the café in hot pursuit. Weaving our way through a series of side streets and jumping a fence or two left some, but not all, of our pursuers in the dust. We were still outnumbered, though, and somehow found ourselves in a blind alley listening to their voices draw closer. So off came glasses, rings, and watches as we prepared ourselves to face them to the sound of a sign creaking overhead in the breeze like a prop from a Sergio Leone film. I glanced up. It was more legible in the daylight, Trattoria Mariotto. A placard on the front door read, “Open for Dinner – 8:00,” but our furious rapping brought Francesca downstairs. She was delighted to see us and even more lovely, given the circumstances. “We need your help! Some men are after us.”
“OK. Avanti! Avanti!” She ushered us inside and shut the door. A few seconds later, several burly fellows trotted halfway down the alley, yelling at each other and shrugging before doing an about-face. Francesca watched them retreat through the lace curtain with a knowing nod. “Ah, la famiglia Tromba. Of course. I know them.” After listening to our story, she muttered ruefully. “They are another old local family. Fascisti. We have hated each other since forever.”
“What do we do?” I asked. “Our hotel is on the other side of their café.”
She took my hands; “This is so sad. You will have to leave Assisi tonight. We are a small town, and they will keep looking. Here’s what we will do…” Max and I would stay in her apartment, and a good friend would pay our hotel bill and bring our luggage back to the trattoria. The hotel’s manager was one of her regulars and could be trusted. They would sneak us down to the station to catch a late-night train to Florence when the coast was clear. “You have money for the hotel, yes?”
Francesca installed us in her living room and made a couple of phone calls before preparing for that night’s dinner service. She even brought us a light meal around 9:15. Sometime after 10:00, her friend, Paolo, arrived with our bags. Max somehow managed to doze on the floor, using his suitcase for a pillow. “That’s Max,” I said, “He could sleep through an earthquake.”
We spent the next two hours whispering and watching him sleep from an overstuffed, extravagantly ornate couch that screamed parental hand-me-down. “I also have a brother like that…” When I gently brushed her hair aside and kissed her forehead, Francesca rested her head against my chest. “I feel so comfortable, so myself, with you. I think we could have had something very nice, yes? Venus can be a cruel goddess.”
Every so often, we heard footsteps outside, and she would rush to the window, only to return, shaking her head. The Tromba men were apparently more interested in sleeping than walking foot patrol. At 12:45, she stood and woke Max for our ride to the station.
The platform was deserted, but we still stood in the shadows, Francesca and I holding hands. I wrote my address and phone numbers on a piece of paper to the sound of our approaching train. “If you come to San Francisco someday…”
“Someday,” she whispered, handing me a small cloth sack as Max and I prepared to board. Then a last kiss. Passionate this time.
Melancholy and a second class train car do not make for a restful night. So I just stared out the window and watched Umbria become Tuscany. It wasn’t until a conductor barged in asking for tickets that I remembered Francesca’s parting gift. Inside the Italian equivalent of a Tupperware container were some of those plump, ripened figs in a fragrant wine sauce. The ingredients, both sweet and tangy, complimented each other as in a good marriage. My long obsession with cannoli had been lifted, but too late. How I wished, how I wish, I had savored those figs two nights earlier.
About the Author
Matthew Snyderman, who lives in Northern California’s East Bay with his wife and daughter, has been writing short stories as a hobby for years. He is interested in exploring challenging situations that befall average people, sometimes quirky, sometimes funny. Sometimes both. His writing has appeared in the 2018 Spring Edition of The Avalon Literary Review.