Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Vacarro's Italian Pastry in Baltimore

Downtown Baltimore has many notable features: one of the nation's prettiest waterfronts, Edgar Allan Poe's grave, the Baltimore Orioles' home at Camden Yards, an iconic view of the Domino Sugar factory, close proximity to one of my favorite museums ever (the always original, often bizarre American Visionary Art Museum), and Little Italy. Ranging from authentic to kitsch, Baltimore's Little Italy may be smaller than some, but the quality of one particular business puts other city's would-be competitors to shame: Vaccaro's Italian Pastry. Offering a wide range of pastries to choose from, you really can't go wrong--Want a Coconut Cream Napoleon? Dive right in!--but the main event are Vaccaro's cannoli.

There's nothing surprising about the cannoli other than how great they are. Like any respectable purveyor of Italian pastry, the cannoli are not filled with the ricotta cream until after the customer orders, keeping the shell crisp. They offer plain and chocolate-dipped shells filled with regular or chocolate cream. Once again, you can't lose, but the regular ricotta in a plain shell is work of art. The cream is thick and heavy, emphasizing the ricotta, unlike lesser businesses whose sickly sweet product uses far too much powdered sugar. Vaccaro's pastry is sweet, but in a more subtle Italian way. Their ricotta is dotted with chocolate chips and has aromatic spices that awakens the senses and gets the sweet tooth twitching. To look at it, the cannoli from Vaccaro's look similar to just about any other cannoli you'll come across, only they get every part of it right. No frills, no surprises. Just great pastry.

It's no wonder that, when I was eating at a nearby Italian restaurant and some nearby customers asked about the dessert options, the waiter started to tell them only to stop himself midway through to say, "You know what? Vaccaro's is right around the corner. That's the place to go." And I agree. If you're in Baltimore: Vaccaro's.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Charmery in Baltimore

Though I've never heard the nickname used outside the city, Baltimore is sometimes referred to as the Charm City. It is from this nickname that the best ice cream I've eaten in Baltimore derives its name: The Charmery.

Top L: Otterbein Cookie Creamcicle
Top R: Tell Tale Chocolate
Bottom: Old Bay Caramel
Baby Scoop: Pistachio Toffee
Located on the W. 36th St strip in Hampden (along with shoe-store-cum-chocolate-shoppe Ma Petite Shoe and another location for blog-favorite Dangerously Delicious Pies), this corner shop sticks out for its bright mural, giant scoop sculpture and nighttime lights. The exterior is just one part of this destination's creative design decisions. My favorite of the shop's artwork is actually the nautical-themed washroom, where soft mood lighting illuminate a wall mural and hanging sculptures of sea creatures (made from colorful plastic ice cream spoons). Back in the store, in addition to their main product, they also sell a collection of odd, Charmery-branded knickknacks, including baby onesies, ice cream pint koozies, turntable slipmats and car air fresheners. Finally, their creativity even extends to their customer loyalty program: when a customer gets their Charmery card punched a certain number of times they get to spin a wheel to see what free thing they earn while a light show spectacle happens and song plays.

The fun doesn't stop there. The Charmery's ice cream showcases originality in its risky flavors whose names often take inspiration from Baltimore landmarks and foods.
The menu changes a little each day.
  • Old Bay Caramel, the Charmery's best selling flavor, chooses an unlikely pairing of flavors using a certain spice known best for being used on seafood and potato chips. The Old Bay adds a spicy aftertaste and unexpectedly makes the caramel come alive.
  • Otterbein Cookie Creamcicle features a local brand of cookies to create a creamcicle ice cream textured with cookies and white chocolate chips. Delicious.
  • Tell Tale Chocolate, an ice cream so dark you'd think it's a sorbet, references Baltimore's grim antebellum poet Edgar Allan Poe...and makes for a much more evocative flavor than the overused "Death By Chocolate." 
  • The Baltimore Orioles' home field gets a nod from the Charmery flavor Day at the Yard, an ice cream with black and orange chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. (This is the first I've seen sunflower seeds in ice cream. Not for me, but I still tip my hat.)
Having tasted nearly all of the available flavors, the top three of the above were ones I'd heartily recommend, along with Pistachio Toffee--an ice cream that takes the subtle flavor of pistachios and complements it with a punch of sweet that makes one marvel at how this pairing hasn't caught on--and their vegan/dairy-free flavor Choco-nut Coconut, which uses coconut milk instead of dairy. (There was also a flavor with Wasabi peas, which the scooper and I agreed was fun to sample, but not to our liking.)

Mural on building exterior,
which bleeds onto the sidewalk.
A glance into their pint freezer revealed numerous other flavors I hope are being served next time I visit: Berger Cookies & Cream (which uses a traditional Baltimore cookie), Cinnamon Ramen (which presumably like a dessert kugel), Queso Frito Fresco (sign me up!) and Peanut Butter Fig.

Not sure what to order? Happily, the Charmery offers a $1 baby scoop that one can add on to any order. A double with a baby scoop on top is a perfectly respectable sampling, though a triple with a baby scoop is also a portion size I found myself more than capable of eating.