Don Chiofaro couldn’t stop eating. His excuse?
“I have a long history with doughnuts,” said the larger-than-life Boston developer between bites of a cream-filled concoction.
Turns out Chiofaro’s father, Sam, was a cop in Belmont, and when his shift ended, he would pop into the neighborhood bakery, Anita’s, to scoop up dozens of unsold doughnuts. He would pack them in his trunk and then drop them off at senior homes, playgrounds, and finally the Chiofaro household.
The story goes a long way to explain why the younger Chiofaro on Monday acted like he never met a doughnut he didn’t like. Honey dip, Boston cream pie, chocolate, sea salt caramel, for starters. He must have sampled 20 different varieties.
To mark Wednesday’s opening of Kane’s Handcrafted Donuts at International Place, the tower Chiofaro built and manages, I needed to find out for myself why these doughnuts are such a big deal. It’s just a fried piece of dough, after all. You can get those everywhere.
Besides, didn’t the boom-and-bust of Krispy Kreme and Crumbs cupcakes teach us anything about getting frothy over a food fad?
What was in order was a doughnut throwdown worthy of celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Kane’s, which does its frying and baking out of its Saugus store, brought in a batch of its finest. The Somerville upstart, Union Square Donuts, is closed Mondays but fired up its fryers just for us. And the doughnut king itself, Dunkin’ Donuts, dispatched a dozen straight from the test kitchen at Canton headquarters.
Of course, Chiofaro took part in the taste test. Former Senate president Bob Travaglini, now a lobbyist with an office at International Place, joined us, as did Boston Harbor Association president Vivien Li and two Boston firefighters, Lieutenant Mike Walsh and Steve MacDonald.
There was one rule: Pace yourself.
Chiofaro and Li broke ranks almost immediately, unable to resist the temptation of more than four dozen pastries spread across a table in the granite courtyard of International Place.
“I’m going to the gym afterwards,” explained Li.
Soon, Travaglini was caught two-fisted, with a Kane’s bacon-crumble in one hand and a maple-bacon doughnut from Union Square in the other.
“This is a little lighter,” Travaglini declared of Kane’s version, but he preferred the Union Square doughnut because, “I like the bigger pieces of bacon. I shouldn’t admit to that.”
Kane’s has been around since 1955, but it is opening just its second store Wednesday in a tiny 700-square-foot location at street level of Chiofaro’s building. Co-owners Paul and Maria Delios, whose parents bought Kane’s in the late 1980s, are riding what feels like a fancy doughnut trend, feeding a craving for handmade sinkers using fresh and local ingredients.
Kane’s doughnuts run $2.50 to $3.50 each; Union Square’s, from $2.75 to $3.50.
Even Dunkin’ is getting into the act, with upscale offerings such as a $1.49 cheesecake square doughnut that will debut at the end of March and a $2.49 croissant doughnut with 24 buttery layers that just joined the permanent menu. A regular Dunkin’ costs 99 cents.
At the chain’s Canton headquarters, a culinary team of 24 bakers and chefs are busy developing the next big craving. Two words: bacon strips. Dunkin’ may be late to the game, but Twitter lit up Friday after I tweeted a photo of its bacon-glazed yeast doughnut that is being tested in Providence.
“People like mashups and hybrids,” said Dunkin’ executive chef Jeff Miller. Think cronut (croissant + doughnut) and turducken (turkey + duck + chicken).
At our taste test in Boston, none of the participants gave the world’s biggest doughnut maker high marks. But Dunkin’ sells about 2.5 billion a year, so it must be doing something right. Just to be clear, no doughnut was left behind in our test; the tenants of International Place swooped in like seagulls to finish them off.
Paul Delios of Kane’s said the family wanted to expand after all these years to remind people what a real doughnut tastes like. He calls what you find at the mass chains “junk” and blames them for putting many mom-and-pop doughnut shops out of business.
So call the International Place store his sweet revenge.
“Doughnuts are love,” said Delios, referring to Kane’s motto. “When you eat one of ours, you know exactly what true love is all about.”
With Kane’s entrance into Boston comes another innovation: the dowich. Delios is introducing a line of sandwiches using Kane’s brioche-based dough as bread. Choices include braised beef, Mediterranean chicken, and lobster salad.
The dowich has won over one fan already: Boston’s Fire Department’s Lieutenant Walsh.
“What is more New England than a lobster doughnut?” said Walsh.
Union Square owner Josh Danoff got into the doughnut business two years ago, hoping to feed our need for classic treats.
“You see someone take a bite of a doughnut. You don’t need to ask the question. You see the answer in their face. Their eyes close a little bit, the head nods,” said Danoff. “It all kind of brings you back.”
That’s what Danoff saw in Chiofaro’s face, and many others that day at International Place.
And that’s what we learned from the taste-off: The memories in every bite are what make the doughnuts.Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.