If there is one area where my picky eating still asserts itself quite strongly it’s with sweets. Probably the last place you’d expect to hear a lot of “No, thank you”s, but such is life with me. I sometimes get off at being difficult. But really, it’s more about particularities, apathies, and personal taste that has solidified over the years rather than a picky eater’s fear of the unknown. I know I’m not alone in these particularities—I doubt that Nora Ephron wasn’t inspired by someone, even herself, when she wrote of Sally Albright’s preferences. It’s funny that I’m picky with sweets, however, because out of all my friends, I’m always the first to say yes to a dessert menu or inquire about going for a post-meal treat. I always want dessert, but I know that there will probably only be one dessert that I will end up wanting. Menu stalking has helped with entrée indecisiveness, but it only takes one glance at the dessert offerings to know exactly what I’ll have.
To delve further: I could care less about chocolate, delicate pastries, and cakes. Pretty much anything with icing, frosting, glazing, or fondant can be easily passed over. I stay away from nuts. With the exception of shortbread (which I want straight from the freezer), I only reach for soft cookies. Not so much with crispy things. I like a good French canele for the custardy centre, but macarons and eclairs don’t get a second look. I never curse the office bakers for tempting me away from my boring, healthy desk lunches because nine times out of 10, the wares are as exciting to me as my carrot sticks. My indifference to chocolate almost seems like a superpower at this point.
As you know, cold and creamy rev my engine, and I can always find something suitable in that regard when sweets are needed. I have a very soft spot for homey desserts like pies, crisps, and cobblers—always always always with whipped cream. Yes, I know pie crust is pastry. It’s not a foolproof system. I like baked things room temperature or even refrigerator cold, including cookies, pies, and the cakes I do like (like Nigella’s chocolate Guinness number). Ice cream at home must be served in a chilled vessel. I can’t think of anything at this moment that I like served warm beyond the accompanying tea. And that, of course, should be hot.
This is all (too much, sorry) to say that it was quite strange that I would suggest to a friend last year that we make an hour-plus pilgrimage to the Italian Bakery Villabate Alba in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. There aren’t a lot of things I would like at an Italian bakery (no to crispy cookies and too much flaky pastry) beyond gelato if they had it, which they do. I don’t know where I first read about Villabate, but when I did, trying out Italian sweets wasn’t what I was after. It was the imported Sicilian ricotta used to fill the sweets that I wanted. Dairy fat was enough to get me on those slow trains to the deep heart of Brooklyn last spring. Shamefully, we only just made our second visit. I blame those S-low trains.
Cannoli seem to be one significant measure of a good Italian pasticceria, specifically a Sicilian one. Sfogliatelle, St. Joseph’s Day zeppole, and rainbow cookies seem to have their place, too, but a quality cannolo has more Yelp rating power. There are many other Italian bakeries in New York, but as I’ve tried to research what others have said and going on what I have been able to try, Villabate Alba always gets a big asterisk because of the imported ricotta. When you go into the shop, conspicuous signs also help underscore this for you. Being able to easily say no to almost all of the many cakes, cookies, and pastries they offer, my order is simple: one cannolo and one cartoccio.
I can’t tell you why the imported ricotta is better. I mean, imported fresh cheese from miles and miles away shouldn’t be all that great, should it? I can tell you that Villabate outshines the rest by what it does with that ricotta. My guess is, very little. Most cannoli I’ve tried taste like icing sugar, largely hiding the fact that the filling contains ricotta at all. Pasty and saccharine is not what I want, especially when most places also tend to overdo it with the chocolate chips and candied citron. Sweet on sweet on no, thanks. Villabate’s filling tastes like dairy. It is smooth and creamy, just sweet enough to remind you that this is a treat and just rich enough to rein you in. Excellent mouthfeel. The chocolate chips and citron are at a minimum, to the point where I could use one hand to count their number in one cannolo. More love from me because I don’t like a lot of crunchy in my creamy. Truly, if I had my choice, I would just order a bowl of that filling to eat with a spoon.
The cannoli are not filled to order, but the turnover is fast enough that you don’t have to be concerned about them sitting too long and the pastry getting soggy. And yes, I again let the system fail with respect to the crispy pastry of cannoli. When you go in for your first bite, there is a fear that the pastry shell will break all down your front, globs of ricotta trailing behind. Not so. The shell breaks exactly to your bite, with almost no crumbs, allowing you a perfect mouthful of shell and filling. The hint of cinnamon in the shell makes me very happy.
The cartoccio is what I really came for, though. It is a coiled, yeasted dough that hugs a tunnel of that same ricotta filling. When you order one, the counterperson will ask you if you want baked or fried. FRIED. You want the doughnut. I can’t even fathom how much less of an experience it would be if you ordered what would essentially be a bun with ricotta*. Don’t worry, their expertise also extends to perfect greaseless frying. It is not an airy dough like an American yeasted doughnut; it’s more brioche-like in its density and chew. I’d be fine without the sugaring, but I understand its place. I love pulling it apart with my fingers then squeezing out ricotta to swipe at with my morsel.
Unfortunately, there is no seating at Villabate and there are no park benches in the vicinity for enjoying your purchases. But they do have a small coffee bar, where you can stand and eat your treats just like you would in Palermo. I must stand and eat my ricotta treats right away. Because of the dairy factor, many of the pastries are kept in cases that are slightly chilled. Cool pastry with cool ricotta? I’m pretty sure my pilgrimage pal has seen my orgasm face. No Sally faking involved.
* That being said, I really want to make these buns with cream.