Growing up, they were this strange thing – only available in one secret Bloomfield, NJ shop (When you walked in the door of the non-descript building, there was an empty room with an empty display case. But through a hole in the wall, you gave your order and got your tiralli.). Nobody I knew had ever heard of them, let alone ate them.
For me, they were one kind. Crunchy, hard, dense texture with a glossy outside. Rings the size of tennis ball. Then David (my brother-in-law) introduced us to a different type, smaller and more cakey. These were the ones his family grew up eating. They were also the ones I saw in Italian shops in New York, sold in packages.
My dad usually bought the fennel flavor, but the garlic and pizza ones were delicious as well. Weird as they were, I loved them. I even had my dad build a special wooden stand like a bracelet holder so I could feature them at my wedding’s cocktail hour.
But Naples? It’s the city of tiralli. They even have their own special variety. They’re bigger, thicker and knottier. Darker in tone, they seem to be made with whole wheat flour. Crunchy still, yet somehow lighter. And studded with almonds?!
This is the classic “Neopolitan” variety, sold throughout bread bakeries, salumerias, and cheese shops. Sometimes even in cases at snack stands.
So I’m in Naples, walking around in the Spanish Quarter when I spot a selection of mini tiralli in the window of a bread bakery. They seem to have various flavors – classic fennel, pomodoro, onion/raisin, and ginger/cinnamon. The sweet ones usually are flavorless and have a sugary glaze on them, but these look plain with just a dusting of some sugar.
I walk away crunching on them – they are delicious. Just like the ones from home, but smaller versions. The onion one is savory and the ginger has a strong, fresh taste of the spice.
My last morning there, I head back to the Spanish Quarter to enjoy one last caffé and sfogiatella. Turning a corner, I find myself smack in front of the bakery again. I should take some tiralli for the road, no? It’s 7:45 am and the bakery is doing brisk business selling rolls and bread. When I ask for tiralli, the guy behind the counter calls another guy to come help me.
While he walks to the case, I start to say “5 each…” and he cuts me off and says “ginebre e cipolla. Da sabato.” He remembered me from the weekend! Of course, I got those AND the other two flavors as well.
As I’m getting my pay slip at the counter, someone comes from the back and dumps a huge tray of rolls into the case. They are “grandpa rolls.” Could I resist that?
(When we would visit their house in Staten Island, NY, he would go out early in the morning to the local bakery and get a paper bag of rolls, which we ate with butter as soon as we arrived.)
I buy one as well – it’s still hot, with that crispy crust and salty, chewy center. It tastes just like the ones Grandpa used to buy and for a moment, I feel like I am back home. Which in a weird reverse way, I guess I am.