The Teacher and Her Cannoli

“The number you have dialed, 215-551-9205, has been disconnected.” Good intentions and the memory of fantastic cannoli aren’t quite enough to get fan to sign up for Italian cooking classes.

I try every few years, not out of pattern or ritual, but out of a fleeting hope for good luck, to find Desanka Giampaolo. This morning it was while going through old things and coming across her business card, black block letters on white, as practical and unaffected as can be.

She was a girl from Yugoslavia, probably the part that became Croatia, who left home in her teens for Italy and eventually Philadelphia, where she and her husband owned a restaurant. “The kind of restaurant where I wouldn’t even cut an onion before someone ordered it,” she told me. I don’t really know what kind of restaurant that is, frankly, but I’d love to.

I met her a decade ago in her post-restaurant days, in semi-retirement, running a café with her husband to stave off boredom in South Philly’s Italian Market, across the street from a shop selling live chickens. I don’t remember why my friend Charles and and I walked into the place, dark and empty in the post-market desertion of that part of the world. I don’t remember why we ordered cannoli, because I had never liked them, stale shells and cloying filling, but it may have had something to do with the fact that there was an empty display case and no menu save for a piece of paper, printed in that kind of font that grows taller at the edges for exciting emphasis, that said, “CANNOLI.” I remember my surprise when Desanka’s husband, a million years old in neatly pressed pants hiked up to his sternum, reached into a case and produced two empty shells. I thought it was a joke, but then he wordlessly shuffled his way over to the kitchen, handing them to Desanka. She had no lights on in there, preferring to work by the windows, and so we watched her silhouette reach into a cooler and slowly fill the shells with a spoon. I’d never seen anyone care about her cannoli before.

Charles and I took seats, getting a feeling that this was a place we’d want to be for a while. The cannoli were, of course, a revelation: crackling shells, tasting of fresh oil, and a grown-up filling that was sweet with the complex tang of cheese. Desanka came out and sat next to us, asking how we liked them. She looked tired as we talked, a function of age, but she radiated energy when she told me about her cooking, about the pain of watching others take shortcuts, which is why I’ve never had cannoli like hers before. We traded jokes and she gave me her card, telling me that she teaches cooking classes. We said goodbye, and I left trying to figure out how I could manage the commute from New York to her shop.

I found myself back there a couple of times, each time having some cannoli and re-introducing myself to Desanka, eager to hear more of her stories, each time resolving to look into her classes.

One time, maybe a year, maybe two years after my first visit, I walked in with a bad feeling. The place was empty, as usual, but something else felt amiss. I said hello to Desanka and she smiled, handing me a cannolo before getting back to her work. It was not good. The filling had a little bite, a bit of fizz from sitting around too long. I didn’t tell her about it, in part because I didn’t want to embarrass her, in larger part because I didn’t want to believe it myself. I waved to her silhouette in the kitchen, saying goodbye, thinking again that I really should look into her classes.

You can guess what happens next. Her café closed; I found that out walking by it three times over three visits to Philly, each time hoping that maybe they were just on vacation or taking a break. And so, every once in a while, I catch some glimpse of her and her cannoli in my memory, and I try to give her phone number a call, buoyed by the hope that maybe she’s still teaching classes, or that maybe she got so bored that she decided to open another restaurant.

This morning it finally occurred to me to Google her. I really should’ve looked into her classes.

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