Last week, as I was making plans for a short visit to Philly, I put a posting on my Facebook page asking friends to recommend things to do, places to see and, of course, where to eat while there. The response was unanimous that the one thing I absolutely had to do was to go to Isgro, an old school Italian pastry shop, and eat cannoli. Cannoli is one of those things that seems to have a much greater following on the East coast than on the West and to be honest, I've never really had a passion for super-sweet, Italian pastries, but when in Rome…
After a particularly sweltering morning spent wandering around the famous Italian marketplace on Philly's south side, sampling various delights such as wild boar prosciutto, pork and provolone sandwiches with sweet peppers and broccoli rabe and eggplant parmesan hoagies, we decided that it was time to venture over to Isgro and get down to some serious business.
From a block away we couldn't help but spot the sign brightly boasting the colors of the Italian flag and as we approached the storefront, it was clear that we were about to take more than a few steps back in time. The bakery displays were packed with cakes, cookies and pastries, each tempting us with their less than natural colors and sugary surfaces, but we had come for one thing and one thing only, a traditional cannoli filled with chocolate chip-studded ricotta cream, made the same way it has been made for the past 100 years. After many minutes of being bounced around the shop like pinballs amongst the hoards of sugar craving customers, it was our turn to order. Our server was a no-nonsense, older woman sporting a white Isgro t-shirt and a bee-hive hairdo and it was clear that she had been doing this for a very long time. She greeted us with a bit of a Philly edge (not too warmly, but not too cold either) and made it clear that she had no time for small talk. So we quickly placed our order, paid and slipped out the door into the heavy June heat to find a stoop to sit on.
I have to admit, with the first bite my opinion of cannoli had forever changed. The shell, light brown and blistered, crackled and burst as I bit into it. The cream, still holding a chill from the refrigerator, was cool and just sweet enough to complement, but not entirely take away the tartness of the ricotta and the chocolate chips provided a perfect balance, in both flavor and texture, to the cream and the shell.
It didn't take long to suck down that cannoli, but it did take some will power not to walk back in and buy another. Eventually, however, we managed to lure ourselves away and continue our tour of the Italian market. Having returned from my trip a few days ago, I am kicking myself for not venturing back to Isgro to buy a cannoli for the road, but something tells me that the next time I go to Philly, Isgro will still be there, just the way it is today, and the way it's been for 100 years.