By Gina DePalma
Sicily is one of Italy’s regional hotspots when it comes to sweets. I decided it was time to devote some attention to what I believe is Sicily’s finest contribution to the pastry world: the beloved, sweet-creamy-crunchy cannoli.
There is a mistaken notion that has hovered around me like a dark cloud for years: that I am somehow anti-cannoli, and one should not mention the word in my general vicinity. Basta! A lie! I love a good cannoli; I just don’t make them myself.
I had my first cannolo with my grandfather, who took me to a pasticceria in the Bronx when I was a wee tot, barely five years old. We sat at a round, curlicued iron table with a marble top he with his hot espresso and me with my glorious, crunchy-sweet tube of fried dough, stuffed to overflow with sweet ricotta cheese and studded with chocolate chips. A big, red, candied cherry was perched on either end. It was ginormous, a symphony of new shapes and textures and colors, and I was hooked.
For me, the delight of perfect cannoli has always been tied to the ceremony of ordering one and then eating it, slowly, at a table. It doesn’t taste the same to me at home as it does in a proper Italian cafe. There is something about watching it being carefully filled, embellished with chips or candied fruits, dusted with a snowy coating of confectioners sugar and placed on a gold-edged plate that just feels special and right, flooding my mind with good memories and assuring me that the planets are properly aligned. It is because of this crushing sentimentality that I swore that I would never make my own cannoli, professionally or personally.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that a home cook can’t make good cannoli. They are a little tricky and take a bit of practice, since there are a lot of steps and your ingredients must be perfect. Mario has a terrific recipe for cannoli in his cookbook, Holiday Food. In fact, I made the cannoli featured in the photograph, violating my very own personal cannoli credo. But for me, it will always be about the experience, that particular sense of excitement and pure content that I get from sitting down in a cafe orpasticceria, preferably with a good friend, to a freshly-filled cannolo and adoppio espresso.
Cannoli are much-loved in America, and are even found reliably in most areas of Italy. They originated in Sicily, and it is there that they reach the heights of perfection. The topography of Sicily itself is present in every bite: the air, the land, and the water.. Like any other Italian food, cannoli taste best in the region of their birth. Ricotta is the defining ingredient, and Sicilian ricotta is sublime, often made with sheeps milk rather than the cows milk ricotta we find here.
So where do I go for my cannoli fix? I have several favorite haunts, and am always on the lookout for the next one. My number one rule, which should also become yours, is to never, ever buy a pre-filled cannoli. They can be ghastly. Enough said.
On Bleecker Street, diagonally across from Faicco, the shrine to Italian pork products, you will find Rocco’s Pastry Shop. I love Rocco’s. There is a real Italian coffee bar there, where the barista will make your coffee to order and with great flair; the spoons and dishes tinkle and clang, the espresso bubbles out contentedly, and Italian is spoken all around you. A huge platter of both mini and full-sized shells sits on the back counter, and your cannoli are filled, one by one, sprinkled with mini chips if requested, and dusted with sugar. For some reason, it is even better to enjoy cannoli at Roccos on a rainy night.
Another favorite stop of mine is Pasticceria Bruno.They have two locations, one in Staten Island, and in Manhattan on LaGuardia Place. Biaggio Settepani’s mama taught him to only fill his cannoli to order, and she checks on him regularly to make sure he is still doing it right. He is, I can assure you. The cannnoli there are wonderful, crispy light shells surrounding a creamy, fresh ricotta filling, piped while you wait. There is a wonderful assortment of other Italian pastries there too, as well as delicious gelato, a feast for the eyes and the soul. I enjoy the cozy, wood-panelled atmosphere. Bruno is a great date to spot drop in for a cannoli and espresso after a movie.
I don’t get to Bensonhurst very often, but a trip to Villabateon 18th Avenue is worth it for their wonderfully authentic cannoli. I am not sure if they use mascarpone in combination with ricotta in their cannoli cream, but it sure is super, silky smooth. The shells are narrow and delicate, you can taste the subtle spiciness from a dash of cinnamon. No chocolate chips here, but you will love the delicious candied orange peel that embellishes each one.
243 Bleecker St
New York , NY
506 LaGuardia Place
New York , NY
7117 18TH Ave
Brooklyn , NY