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Kara Explains: The Lure of the 4:00 AM Cannoli (Part One)

March 26, 2010

Last month, I shared some information about my family’s tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve with Festa dei sette pesci, or the Feast of Seven Fishes. I hinted that there was another Christmas Eve day tradition, one that involved a seriously early wake-up call and a drive into Philadelphia.  If I was surprised by the the questions I received from readers about the sette pesci tradition, I was not at all prepared for how much interest we received regarding that one-line teaser.  Why on earth would anyone choose to wake up at 4:00 AM and drive an hour or more into Philly on Christmas Eve morning?  What could possibly be that important?  Well today, I’m pleased to explain the lure of the 4:00 AM cannoli, otherwise known as the other Christmas Eve day tradition…

To hear my dad explain the origins of this tradition, it just kind of happened.  Five or so years ago, my dad was bustling around the kitchen a few days before Christmas when he heard a piece on the news that caught his attention.  A reporter was standing in the pre-dawn light on a sidewalk in Philadelphia, gesturing over her shoulder at the somewhat unremarkable Italian bakery behind her.  As people made their way out of the bakery behind her, burdened with bags and boxes of all kinds of goodies, you could hear accordion music and the hum of dozens of conversations drifting out into the cold morning air.  Footage from inside showed a solid line of customers winding through the bakery like a serpent, stretching all the way into the kitchens and maybe even beyond, while all around them, cookies and cannoli and tarts and all manner of tempting little treats sat patiently waiting to be scooped up and taken home.  Apparently, there was something appealing about this early morning Christmas Eve throng, or maybe it was the siren song of truly traditional Italian pastries.  Whatever it was, to my dad, it was game on.

At first, he made this trek alone, and then one year my sister went with him.  Two years later, her fiancé started going as well, while the rest of us slept in.  They’d come back from the city tired and a little over-caffeinated, usually needing an afternoon nap in order to recover from their early morning adventure, but they kept saying what a cool experience it was, how much fun it was, how good the coffee is… I’m not really a morning person, but finally all this talk of fun and music and the promise of pastries wore me down.  This past Christmas, the darkness of 5:00 AM found me and my dad in the car heading towards Termini Brothers Pasticceria in South Philly.

The history of the Termini family is really amazing – grandfather Giuseppi apprenticed to a master baker in southern Italy at the age of eight, the opening of the first Termini Brothers location in 1928, the three generations of Termini bakers who have made the same traditional cookies and pastries for over 80 years.  There’s a lot to love about the Termini family and their dedication to their craft.  But to really understand why Termini’s is a Christmas Eve must, not just for my family but for families all over the tri-state area (and even from across the country), you have to see it for yourself.  In other words, bring on the photos!

Although normal business hours at the main Termini’s location don’t begin until 7:00 or 8:00 AM, on Christmas Eve morning they open their doors at 5:00 AM – and believe me, the crowd is usually there waiting!  Customers file in through the loading docks if things are really busy, forming a line that ends in the kitchen.  The good news is, this is where they keep the vat of free coffee and trays of puff pastries intended for customer noshing.  Even better, the pastry chefs don’t mind the zombie-like hoards of tourist-minded customers snapping pictures of their every move.  (And yes, I do mean me!)

So how many pastry chefs does it take to satisfy the Christmas Eve crowds?  These three were machines, filling cannoli shells so quickly that the industrial-sized piping bags cleverly suspended from the ceiling were emptied and replaced with freshly filled bags in the time it took me to fix my coffee, snap a few photos, and scurry out of the way.  I did ask them how many cannolis they thought they filled on a day like today, and the “What are you, crazy?” looks I got for asking a question like that made me only too happy to join my dad in line.

Inside the storefront, an orderly form of chaos was well underway.  People were behind me, to my left, to the right, and all of them understanding exactly what happens next:  If you’re waiting to order on the spot, you hang in the kitchen until there’s enough room to join the rest of the line as it winds from the back of the store on the right, to the front of the store, then back around to the left where you order.  If you’re waiting to pick-up your internet or phone-ahead order, you wait in the kitchen until there’s enough room at the back of the store, and then you move from the back of the store to the line of people waiting off to the far right, avoiding the other line which is the order-on-the-spot line.  And if you think the explanation is confusing, trying being in the middle of it with only a few hours of sleep and two measly little cups of coffee keeping you on your feet!  But if you can survive the lines out the back, the lines through the front, and the waiting in line to, well, wait in line some more, oh… what wonders await you…

Check back here for Part 2 (and lots of food porn) on Monday!

– Kara

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2010 8:53 pm

    What a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing it!

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  1. Kara Explains: The Lure of the 4:00 AM Cannoli (Part Two) « The Oldways Table

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