Getting hungry at 2 a.m. sucks.
It’s certainly an ordeal at Boston College, which has dining hall options available only until that time on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights—it’s midnight on weekday nights. And it’s not much easier for those in the rest of Boston, a city that tells its patrons to give out last-call rounds by 2, at least for now.
After that, Bostonians out on the town have to fend for themselves. Even in a restaurant-congested area like the North End, most places lock up their doors by 10 or 11 p.m. on weekends. But if you stumble down the right, tight-knit, horse-carriage street—either Salem or Prince St. will do—in the heart of the North End, just a two-minute walk from the Old North Church, there’s an unwavering haven of fresh-baked goods to be found.
Bova’s Bakery is not merely open 24 hours a day, seven days a week—it thrives during those off-hours, bringing in the late-night crowds for a bite of a pizzelle or cannoli.
“It’s crazy,” said Michelle Abramo, one of the many family members who keep the bakery running. “Late night on a Friday and Saturday night, those three hours [from 1 to 4 a.m.] are probably the busiest of the week.”
There is so much business that they have to be careful what they offer during that time. Besides being known for its Italian eateries, the North End remains a significant residential area, too, with people living above and around Bova’s. Since the customers entering the bakery so late at night tend to be unrulier groups, the City of Boston has told Bova’s not to sell anything considered to be a meal. This practice keeps customers moving along, rather than congregating to stop and eat. It also forces them to experience Bova’s in its more original form.
Antonio Bova, the namesake and creator of the bakery, was an Italian immigrant who crossed the Atlantic with the dream of owning his own business. He began as an apprentice at another Boston bakery, quickly acclimating to his new environment. He opened A. Bova & Sons Bakery just across the street from where it is now, on the corner of Prince and Salem, in 1926, specializing in bread—and only bread—to sell to his predominantly Italian neighbors. Even back then, A. Bova & Sons operated 24 hours a day, serving the taxi drivers, night-shift nurses, and others who worked at unconventional times.
As the taste buds surrounding the bakery diversified, so did Bova’s selections. The bakery began by converting its space from a diner with booths into its current layout: multiple large, glass display cases, each holding too many sweets to take in at once, with some but not much room to shuffle around in the center. In the 1960s, cookies made their first appearance in the cases. Those were gradually followed by coffee cakes on the weekends, then cupcakes with homemade whipped cream, bismarcks, and donuts, among others.
“What has happened, people are always trying to lower their carbs and everything,” Abramo said. “In the ’90s I’d say, people didn’t want to eat as much bread as they used to. But they still want to eat sweets.”
With the ’90s also came the introduction of more substantial meals: sandwiches, calzones, rice balls, and pizza. And of course, by this time, cannolis.
“When people come to Boston, they want to try cannolis,” Abramo said.
Bova’s gives its customers a variety from which to choose. The bakery prides itself on constantly trying new things beyond the more traditional ricotta, chocolate chip, chocolate-dipped shell. Starting about three years ago, they began experimenting with new flavors: nutella, creme broule, pumpkin (seasonally), flourentie (which is nuts, honey, and brown sugar in butter rolled up into a shell), pistachio, oreo, and cappuccino. A new limoncello is next on deck.
But ask Abramo, and she’ll tell you their best treat is the lobster tail. The dessert’s shape and size compare to an actual lobster tail, at first appearing with its flaky shell as an overstuffed, half-crescent croissant topped with a healthy dusting of powdered sugar. A very sweet, tasty combo of whipping cream, mascarpone, and Bavarian cream fills the inside, making the New England namesake a decadent Italian dessert.
If that doesn’t sound like your thing, there are plenty of other directions to take. There are muffins, croissants, bagels, lemon squares, apple squares, rum cakes, cupcakes, chocolate milanos, raspberry turnovers, multiple flavors of whoopie pies, cream puffs, cookies, cakes—the list goes on.
The full array requires a variety of ingredients, some of which—like the cheeses for cannolis—Bova’s imports to get the best flavor. It also requires an extensive staff, especially when the ovens are going at literally all hours of the day. Bova’s has about 10 to 12 people working at a given time, depending on the time of day, with about 40 total employees, some of whom have worked for the bakery for more than 25 years. And others, even longer.
When Antonio Bova included his sons in the name of the business, that meant they worked alongside him. All five of them took over the business together. Two were bought out after a time, but the other three stayed. At that point it was still a tough job that none of them could handle full-time, so they formed a system: one would take a turn at the bakery for six months, baking the bread, managing other employees, and generally running the day-to-day operation. After that, he had a year off while the other two took their turns.
Those brothers have now passed the business on another generation, and they passed their system down along with it. Currently, Abramo—the daughter of Ralph Bova, Antonio’s middle son—runs Bova’s with her brother and mother. Next cycle, a cousin of hers and his brother will take the reigns, and the one after that, another cousin and wife. Each remains dedicated to the Bova’s vision of providing quality baked goods all day and night, even while everyone in the family has another full-time career. Abramo is a pharmacist currently working for CVS. Her brother Anthony is a dentist, working in his office just across the street when he’s not baking at Bova’s. Her son has his master’s in health care and a full-time job with Leahy Health, and he works here at night in the back making cookies. Sometimes on weekends he’s up 24 hours straight.
“We try to have our children work here,” Abramo said. “It’s a great life lesson on responsibility, family, how to respectfully treat people. You learn a lot of different things here. And we get to be in the Mecca of the state.”
Bova’s location in a central restaurant hub also provides the family with one of its biggest challenges: figuring out what will sell. They’ll get the returners, coming back every weekend night to satisfy a craving, as well as newcomers, travelling in from across the U.S. and the world. In other words, they just cannot be sure what their customers are going to buy.
“A lot of the clientele that we get from Middle America, from, say, Virginia or Kentucky, and they might not really be into cannolis, but they’d love an apple square, or they’d love a cinnamon stick, just a more American-type dessert,” Abramo said. “So not everyone is looking for an Italian-type dessert.”
But if you’re someone who really wants that cannoli at 2 a.m.—or 5 a.m, or 5 p.m., or whenever—you know exactly where to turn.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor