Just as with Kiflis Bakery in Cuyahoga Falls, I have driven by Ninni's Bakery on East Tallmadge Avenue in Akron hundreds, if not thousands, of times in my life. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to stop in and check them out, but I never did. It wasn't until I found a write-up of the bakery in Laura Taxel's newest edition of Cleveland Ethnic Eats (my write-up of her book is here), that I finally decided to stop in one Saturday and check out what they had to offer.
Between the colors and the marquee, the exterior pretty much says "Italian Bakery":
But it's not until you walk in and see shelf after shelf of freshly made sweet and savory items that you really begin to understand the commitment that the owners put into making these treats available to their customers. I talked with one of the owners and he mentioned that everything is made from scratch and right there on the premises. Ninni's offers such variety, even when talking about a single concept. Ninni's doesn't just offer an Italian style macaroon. They offer six or seven. And many of the treats come in a small size or a large size, so you can fit the treats to the size of your appetite.
While there are a couple of small tables inside the store where you could sit and eat, I felt I would be a little too conspicuous sitting there, photographing and dissecting everything I had bought just moments before. Seeing as it was a gorgeous 75 degree Fahrenheit day, I decided to seek out a park bench to carry out my tasting. I grabbed my boxed up treats from Ninni's and headed out to The Chuckery area of the Cascade Valley Metro Park, just about a ten minute drive from the store. Here I managed to locate the picnic area which was built right next to a lovely stream.
This served as the backdrop for what was to come:
With babbling brook to my backside, I selected a picnic table that had a decent amount of light, sat down, and prepared to get started. Here is a photo of the snacks I brought with me:
First up is the sfogliatelle:
What I sort of already knew and what was definitely confirmed in my experience today is that Italians like contrasts in their foods. Crunchy with tender. Sweet with savory. You get the picture. The exterior of this pastry was very crunchy, almost like crisp phyllo dough. But once you bit into the pastry, it was wonderfully tender and delicious. Studded with the occasional dried fruit, the texture was much like a very moist cake, but with a larger hole structure. The only problem I had with the sfogliatelle was that by the time I was done eating it, I was covered in powdered sugar.
Next up, the Italian powerhouse of pastries, the cannoli:
The shell was perfectly fried; not a smidgen of grease could be found on any of the paper touching it. The filling was a gently sweetened Ricotta cheese that had the occasional chocolate morsel strewn throughout. Once filled, the cannoli were dipped in colored dessicated coconut. This was a wonderfully sweet treat. The shell only broke where you bit into it, thus avoiding the problem of having to hold together a crumbling pastry shell. The little bits of chocolate were nice, and didn't overpower the rest of the flavors. Overall, this was a nice pastry.
Next up, a shot of the homemade torroni:
This was amazing! The mixture of nuts and nougat was so perfectly balanced. You can really taste the hazelnuts, pistachios, and almonds with each bite. The top and bottom of the torroni is actually layered with edible rice paper so that once set, it can be cut and handled with ease. This wasn't a particularly sweet treat, and this may be why I liked it so much. I can totally see myself eating one of these in place of a biscotti with my cappuccino.
Finally, I decided to do a little layout of the various cookies that I had purchased from Ninni's. Quite the impressive spread, if I do say so myself:
I'll go through each one individually. First up, the pignoli macaroon:
All of the macaroons had an almond base to them (since almond flour is used as part of all of the recipes). The pignoli (or pine nut) macaroon was nice because it balanced a more savory item with the sweetness of the underlying macaroon. The pine nuts also added a nice crunch to the creaminess of the cookie. Of all the macaroons, this was probably my favorite.
Next up, the coconut macaroon:
I was worried that the coconut might get lost in the big almond flavor of this cookie. And while the coconut was subtle, you could definitely still taste it. I think by putting the coconut on the outside of the macaroon was a smart move. Not only does it visually identify what kind of cookie it is, the coconut acquires additional flavor by toasting in the oven during baking.
Next up is a pistachio macaroon:
Well, sort of. The bottom part of the cookie is the pistachio macaroon part. The top layer is a simple butter cookie. And while there were no discernible pistachios in the macaroon portion, it had a lovely nutty flavor that reminded me of sitting down with a bowl of freshly shelled pistachios and eating a handful. The butter cookie on top actually worked very well to add another level of dimension to the cookie.
The last macaroon that I tried was the almond macaroon:
This is the only one that I didn't care for all that much. Besides there being almond flour in the base of the cookie base, and slivered almonds on top, this cookie had an over-the-top, almost too much, almond flavor that could've only come from the addition of an almond extract. I don't have a problem with the use of good quality extracts in baking, per se, but this cookie just had too much of it. I literally had to take a break after eating this cookie for about ten minutes because I could taste nothing else except almond. If you like almond flavored sweets, you'll love this. Me? Not so much.
The final cookie I decided to try wasn't a macaroon. It was their fig bar:
This was more of a shortbread style cookie with a fig filling. The fig filling was especially good, tasting of fresh figs and lemon. The slight acidity in the filling worked well against the butteriness of the surrounding cookie. If Fig Newtons tasted like this, I'd be eating them all the time.
After I finished my tasting, I sat there at my picnic bench watching the stream meander along in order to collect my thoughts. While I had my favorites and my not-so-favorites, I want to stress that everything was very good. What amazed me, too, is how FRESH everything tasted. The cookies simply melted in your mouth and the pastries tasted as if they had been made right before I walked into the store. How Ninni's can make such a vast array of cookies, pastries, and breads every day is a thought that even I have a hard time comprehending. I know that while some items will stand up to being frozen and thawed better than others, my more or less random selection method employed today didn't manage to find anything I could identify as such.
I am pleased to have an Italian bakery in Akron that has such high quality and delicious offerings. I'm kicking myself for not checking it out sooner than I did, but I guess I can now tell you, gentle reader, to check them out for yourself. Those with a sweet tooth in your life will thank you.