Friday, May 25, 2012

La Cascia's Bakery: mangia, Boston!

Cascia's has something your average bakery doesn't. Pizza. Subs. Cold cuts. Pickled hot peppers. This busy joint is half bakery, half deli, but it's ALL Italian. Would you like a fresh loaf of bread? A square of just-baked pizza for $2? How about chicken parmiggiano? Well, for a lot of customers I saw in the store, the answer was yes. But the Babe was on a mission to sample the baked goods. And there was a LOT to pick from! Moon cakes, whoopie pies, mocha cake, ricotta cheese cake...

When strung between a cannoli and a cupcake, the Babe picks...both, of course! Cascia's has a nice, light crumb to their cake, and old-fashioned decorations that prompted the big bear of a counter man to say, "You got strong feelings on which color rose you get?" As it happens, I would've been happy with any of them!

Don't forget to try one of their tricked out cookies, either.

I'll go so far as to say that you can't go wrong here. The staff is friendly, the savory food is good & cheap, and the bakery goods have a lot of old-school heart. It's worth making the trek out to Medford just to say you had a $2 slice of old-school pizza.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Arthur's Bakery: The Real Deal

For many Bostonians, the suggestion that they might stray more than a block or two from the red line induces hysteria. But there's good reason to put on your walking shoes and head into Medford: namely, awesome Italian bakeries. Just a 20 minute walk from Davis Square is Main Street Medford, a small cluster of neighborhood shops that boast Arthur's Bakery among them.

Arthur's is a family-run bakery on it's third or fourth generation, filled with that elusive thing the Bakery Babe has been searching for: lush desserts with real cream at a small price. What sets Arthur's apart from anything I've tried in the North End is that they use a much higher quality of ingredients. There's real cream in the cream puffs. There's real ricotta in the cannolis and the shells are made there in the store. The mousse cake is a slouchy, soft ode to all that is right in the genre. And it's less than $3 a slice. I am not kidding when I say that their cannolis are the nicest I've had in Boston (yes, that includes in the North End).

But what really warms my heart are the cookies. Shelves and shelves of homemade cookies.

And if you want to pick up a box as a gift, you're in luck! Arthur's has stacks and stacks of be-ribboned boxes ready to take home.

The baker at Arthur's is a garrulous, fun character who will tell you all about his great-grandfather's first Boston bakery, and he makes no bones about his thoughts on modern bakeries today. The lady at the counter has a heart of gold, and I left with my tidy little box of goodies feeling that I'd been to a warm, top-notch bakery with a wonderland of dainties. Please do get in your car or put on your walking shoes and come out to support this sweet bakery. You won't regret it!

382 Main Street Medford, MA 02155
(781) 395-4812

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lulu's Sweets Shoppe: A Sweet End to a Day in the North End

Lulu's isn't Italian, to clear that up right off the bat. You won't find eclairs or cream puffs or little wedding cookies, as you might in many of the other shops in the Italian district. But for those making the circuit of Hanover Street to Salem Street and back to the T, you will find Lulu's a last stop on your sugar jag. And why is it worth a stop in? Friendly staff, old-fashioned little bags of candy, and a modest but delicious selection of cupcakes. All in a haze of hot pink decor.

The cupcakes are well priced at under $3, and they aspire more to the realm of 1950s cupcakes than the modern breed of designer cuppies. That means you won't have to fight two cups of icing to get to the cake, which is immensely moist. Their signature cupcake is the chocolate with cream filling, with a very cute "Lulu's" written on the chocolate frosting. So grab a few, along with a lollipop or two, on your way out of the North End.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Modern Pastry: Always the Bridesmaid?

Modern Pastry lives just a block away from Mike's Pastry in the North End, and is often mentioned as the one Italian bakery that might compete with it. Yep, it's named "Modern Pastry" and it's an old-school Italian bakery. Cynics might say it's the bakery people go to when the line at Mike's is just too bloody long to wait in. But as I chatted with a local at the counter today, he said what a lot of Bostonians might find, that it's much less touristy and has the feel of a more personal bakery than Mike's. You will find two small cases of desserts and a wall of cookies in frumpy-but-practical bags.

Rather than 500 cannolis, Modern has about twenty, and they fill it for you there on the spot, so that you can be sure the crunchy stays crunchy.

Presentation doesn't seem to be quite as big a deal at Modern. It's the sort of place that wraps their whoopie pies in plastic bags to make sure they stay fresh. And their selection definitely varies from just traditional Italian goodies. Behind a slightly foggy case I spied some tasty looking fruit tarts.

So what is the cannoli verdict on Modern? I had the audacity to line up one of their cannolis with one of Mike's and do a mano-a-mano cannoli deathmatch. I cannot tell a lie. Modern's was the same price but half as big, the cookie shell was denser and the cream just didn't taste quite as good. It wasn't that it was bad, it just wasn't as dang tasty and impressive as a cannoli from Mike's Pastry. I fear that, yes, Modern Pastry's cannolis may well be the bridesmaid of Little Italy, as much as I was rooting for the underdog to win. But if you want a smaller, possibly less crowded experience (read: you have a chance of scoring a table here), give Modern Pastry a try. It might just charm you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mike's Pastry: the Mothership of Bakeries

Mike's is the mothership of bakeries. No matter where you go in Boston, you will see people carrying pastry boxes tied with blue twine, looking very much like cats with canary feathers sticking out of their mouths. That's because Mike's is the quintessential Italian bakery in the North End that everyone has to go to at least once while in Boston. It's more than just the jaw-dropping ocean of goodies. It's the tin-flowers that make up the walls, the 20 or so old-school women behind the biggest bakery counter I've ever seen, the hustle and jumble of hundreds of people lined up on a summer day just to get in the is, for lack of a better word, an experience.

To start? Cream puffs the size of golden retrievers.

And then a jewelled nation of Italian bakery cookies gleaming up at you.

While you're stopping by cookie-land, be sure to grab some of the non-photgenic but highly addictive pistachio macaroons. Really, these sugar-almond bombs will knock you on your bottom.

But all of this is just a warm up to the main attraction: the cannolis. About twenty different varieties of these bad boys, lined up in heaping trays. Sprinkled with chocolate chips, infused with lemons or ammeretto...pretty much any cannoli you can image, Mike's has. What are the key components of a cannoli, you ask? Basically, you're getting a sweet crunchy cracker curled around a cup's worth of bakery cream that tastes thick on the tongue, indicating that there may be ricotta cheese or the likes mixed into all that other good stuff. In Mike's case, if you don't ask for the stronger flavors, you essentially get a very mild, creamy filling and a crunchy exterior. Not the thunder of the heavens flattening you with superb taste, but rather a very comforting creature that you might just like to inhale along with a strong cup of coffee, which Mike's handily serves.

Don't let the photos fool you. These cannolis are well over half a pound and will seriously put a dent in your appetite. At $3 each, you can try more than one, but figure a sane, grown person can down 1.5 max before going belly up and running for the rolaids. The inevitable conclusion? You are going to need more than one visit to Mike's to sample all of their goodies!

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Cookies: Quincy Market

Let me first say that I'm a fan of Fanueil Hall and the whole downton vibe of new-city-old-city. And, incidentally, I'm a huge fan of food courts when they're done well. So I tried to keep an open mind when I wandered into Quincy market today, in search of that perfect slice of cake that had magically escaped the eye of every foodie in the blogosphere to date. Because you don't often hear elegiac praise for the lobster rolls, clam chowder, or anything else served up in the galleys of Quincy Market. It is, in essence, one long corridor of food-court style joints selling hot dogs, mac n' cheese, and what is advertised as authentic New England food. And while I can bliss out at a good food court, I frankly become a little cranky when presented with slop houses that charge $12 for a burger. You can guess which category I think Quincy Market falls into.

But the Babe is not one to be clouded by such judgements when it comes to baked goods. I found and decided to sample the cookies at two bakery-style counters at Quincy today. Call it a cookie showdown, or a tale of two cookies: Kilvert & Forbes Bakeshop vs. Carol Ann Bakeshop. First up was Kilvert & Forbes, which presents a counter crammed with cookies the size of flying saucers.

Give or take a few brownies and macaroons.

I balked at the price tag of $3.25 for a cookie, but was ultimately seduced by good looks. I mean, this looks yummy, doesn't it?

I will admit, as I nibbled and ambled that it was a pleasant cookie, flat and soft with a bit of vanilla having play. Did it rock my world? Will I wake up dreaming about it and plotting how to worm my way back into the cavern of food at Quincy? Nope. I wish I could say yes, as that $3.25 ain't coming back. But really, it was a decent cookie that perhaps would've been fairly priced at $2.

At the other end of Quincy, I stopped at Carol Ann's bakeshop. They too have cookies the size of frisbees for $3. I opted for the "mini" or regular cookie at $1.40.

I crunched and nibbled at a cookie that was still warm, had a slightly crunchy exterior and a soft interior. It wasn't a bad cookie a'tall. But again, I was not overcome with the urge to buy another twenty. And the cupcakes, with their spastic, haphazard decorations, weren't even contenders.

I slouched away from Quincy feeling a bit overdone with sugar, and my wallet $5 lighter. Why my discontent? I find that in very touristy areas, there are often stores that get away with selling things on a one-time basis to people who will think an item looks quite tasty, only to find that it is just okay and very, very expensive. That's why they call it a tourist "trap," right? When it comes to cookies and Quincy Market, consider this: a five minute walk will buy you a cannoli the size of a dump truck for $3 in the North End. Save your buckaroos for the good stuff, and satisfy yourself with a stroll around Quincy to admire the architecture not the food.