March 19, 2020 and I craved a cannoli. Actually, I crave a cannoli anytime, but on this afternoon the desire was heightened because the day was the Feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of the Sicilians. There would be a problem, though.
On a typical St. Joseph’s Day, Angelo Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream Parlor on North Carrollton would be even busier than usual. There would be the smell of anise from the bakery counter and the roasting coffee in the espresso machine. In a corner would be a St. Joseph altar – a tower of food, mostly cookies and cakes, built in the tradition of honoring the saint.
Cannoli are among Sicily’s contributions to the great confections of the world: a tube-shaped pastry shell made of fried dough is stuffed with a sweet cheese, almost always ricotta, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. It often happens that immigrants bring recipes and traditions to America from their native lands. Here they are embellished and actually made better, especially at places such as Brocato’s which might make, and I am not kidding, the world’s best cannoli.
Whereas the traditional pastry is stuffed only with vanilla flavored ricotta, Brocato’s has more. Made to order, the cannolis are filled with half-chocolate and half-vanilla ricotta, then dipped with pistachio nuts. Next comes not just the powdered sugar, but also cinnamon. Coffee was created, I am convinced, to be served alongside a cannoli.
But, there was a problem that day, and it was a big one. No one could get into Brocato’s.
By St. Joseph Day, 2020 all the talk about a virus, to be known commonly as COVID-19, was getting serious. Earlier that week the governor had closed schools. Hospitalization numbers were increasing. There was a new phrase in the global language, “social distancing,” and we were all supposed to be doing it. Restaurants were being limited in allowable customers.
All Brocato’s business had been shifted to take place through one window. Other than an empty pub on St. Patrick’s Day, there is no sight quite as forlorn as an empty table at an Italian bakery on St. Joseph’s Day.
Through the window I could see the altar of pastry remaining untouched in a corner—itself socially distanced.
We knew that we were all facing something different in our lives and that there would be restrictions. We might have been more upset, except that we all expected that the limitations would be brief. It wouldn’t be long before we were at a table dipping our cannoli in the coffee again.
We would be rid of the virus in only a few weeks, we were sure.
Life would be better soon. There might even be powdered sugar on top.