The scene: The waning days of Advent, Christmas coming up. I’m winding up the year for clients and getting ready for the holiday with family.
Out of the blue, a cryptic message from an Italian man that no one wants to cross. Tony Faour, the BBQ Godfather, master of smoked meats and sautéed mushrooms. Tony’s reputation is known all up and down I-45: If you have a craving for excellent BBQ, Tony can hook you up, and you don’t have to wait hours for the privilege. He is a gracious host. He may, in the future ask you for a favor. It may not be pleasant. Today his instructions were simple:
“Meet me at Phil’s. I have cannoli.”
Phil would be Phil Nicosia, proprietor of Pallotta’s Italian Grill, and another Italian businessman you do not want to cross. Phil controls the world’s supply of Dominick’s Mud, la chac la bread, and an addictive substance he’ll only identify as “Number 84”. Get on Phil’s naughty list, and these and other vital substances disappear from your life. No rehab facility in the world can help you when you can’t get Number 84.
I arrive at Phil’s place, festively decorated for the holidays, filled with local residents chowing down on Phil’s great Italian food. These citizens had no idea what was about to go down, literally across the room from them.
I casually sauntered up to the bar, and noticed that Tony had brought his crew. His lovely bride was at his side. He’d also brought his consigliere, the saucy brunette known only as Brittany SoFly, the woman who’ll present your BBQ with a smile… for a price. (Actually a very reasonable price, considering the quality of both the BBQ and the smile.)
Taking a spot at the bar, I noticed a mysterious blonde next to me. We made eye contact, and it was none other than Kim Bellini, foodie femme fatale, fantastic photographer, and renowned expert on ranch dressing and cream gravy. Kim’s finely-tuned palate for all things creamy made her an obvious choice to judge these traditional Sicilian pastries.
Was I in over my head? Me, a simple boy who loves good food, sitting down with these dangerous characters, daring go toe-to-toe with them and declare my favorite?
Well, mom always liked me. Armed with that comforting thought, I kicked back the Coca-cola I ordered, my resolve steeled.
After some pleasant chit-chat where the competitors took measure of each other and exchanged friendly barbs, the cannoli appeared.
Both were beautiful examples of the pastry chef’s art. Phil’s were slightly thick, bursting with creamy filling, each end dotted with the oft-seen candied cherry. Tony’s were lighter, more delicate, the ends festooned with crushed, salted pistachios.
It was the moment of truth. I tasted them both.
|Cannoli from BBQ Godfather (Not on the menu. Yet.)|
Tony’s cannolo was an impressively authentic rendition of the best cannoli you’d find in New York City. The shell was light, delicate, and delicious, with a savory flavor reminiscent of a pie crust. The filling was mild and delicate, with zings of sweetness from small chunks of dried fruits. No flavors overpowered the others. The salty pistachios added another layer of complexity. The overall experience was a balance of semi-savory flavors with only a hint of sweetness. This is a very sophisticated cannolo, one that any Manhattan white tablecloth restaurant would be proud to offer.
|Cannoli from Pallotta’s Italian Grill|
Phil’s rendition of this classic pastry was very different. Biting into it gave a burst of flavor; cinnamon, sweetness from the cream filling, a bit of chocolate, the bright flavor of the candied cherries. Phil’s shells were as solid and substantial as Tony’s were light and delicate; they delivered a satisfying crunch when you bit into them. This cannoli was very sweet, with big flavors. I could see lines around the corner if a street vendor in Brooklyn offered them to the public.
Declaring a winner was difficult. The competitors couldn’t have been more different, reflecting the totally different styles of the men who created them. I really enjoyed them both, and would gladly order either one. But for me personally, the brash, in-your-face flavors of Phil’s creation tempted me to take that one last bite, and for that, I have to declare Phil the winner in a very close contest.
If you find me at the bottom of Lake Woodlands tomorrow, have a very Merry Christmas.