Cannoli: tubes of crunchy pastry filled with sweet, rich ricotta cream. (Cannoli is plural, cannolo singular—if you are able to limit yourself to just one.) I first made their acquaintance when I moved from Seattle to Boston and explored the pastry shops of the North End, Boston's Italian neighborhood.
I was immediately hooked.
Cannoli are a distinctly Sicilian specialty, dating back to the Arab occupation of the island in the early Middle Ages. Food historians believe they are an evolution of the Arabic qanawat—pastry formed into tubes, deep-fried, and then filled with a variety of sweets, popular from Andalusia to Baghdad. And as Sicilians will tell you, the best cannoli come from the northern half of the island, from Catania to Palermo.
So when I married a man from northern Sicily, I made it a mission to find the island's best cannolo. Our family trips every August became a quest, the perfect cannolo my Holy Grail.
Traditionalists will tell you that cannoli are to be eaten in the early spring, at Carnival time, but I disregarded the Italian devotion to seasonality. Summer by summer I learned to discern a good cannolo from a great one (because no self-respecting Sicilian pastry shop sells anything less than good).
When I first tasted a cannolo made by Roberto Chemi, the self-proclaimed "Cannoli Wizard" in Taormina, I knew I had struck cannolo gold. I brought three beloved Sicilian foodies—that is, my husband and his two brothers—to try Roberto's magic.
With the first bite, they agreed. We had found Sicily's best cannolo.
I've returned to Roberto's bakery every summer, never tiring of Taormina, a town whose pebbled beaches, third-century Greek amphitheater, and medieval architecture have been attracting crowds of tourists since the 18th century. This summer, I was determined to learn Roberto's secrets.
"They're always fresh, that's the secret," Roberto boasts.
Cannoli are indeed always fresh in Sicily. Bakeries occasionally have window displays of plastic cannoli, but more often there is simply a sign declaring "cannoli filled upon request." As all Sicilians know, more than 15 minutes of ricotta in the shell, and the cannoli turn from something magical into mush. There had to be something more. I pressed on.
The ricotta? Only sheep's milk, never cow. "Cow's milk ricotta is light. Sheep's milk ricotta is much creamier."
The pastry shell? "I start with flour, and add a bit red wine that has become vinegary." Roberto warms up, and I furiously take notes. "Not red wine vinegar, but wine that you can no longer drink, that has become as vinegary as possible. Add a little pure alcohol, and a pinch of sugar. Take animal fat—you know, lard—and cut it into little pieces, then work it into the flour with the wine. Leave the dough to rest for a day."
And the frying? "In lard." Using stainless steel tubes as the pastry molds? "No, no, the pastry is wrapped around sugar cane."
No wonder no one makes cannoli at home.
After carefully filling the pastry shell with the sweetened ricotta ("I always make sure that there is no pocket of air in the middle, like you might find at another bakery"), Roberto dips one end in pralined almonds, then dusts the cannoli with powdered sugar.
Roberto's been producing cannoli and other sweets at his shop since opening it with his father in 1989. It was his father, who had 30 years' experience as the pastry chef for Taormina's legendary San Domenico hotel, who taught him the tricks of the trade. Along with cannoli, Roberto prepares ricotta-filled cassata cake, chocolate-dipped candied orange peel, fruit molded from marzipan, and rich pastries made with Sicilian almonds and pistachios (the renowned Avola almonds and Bronte pistachios, to be precise), scented with lemon, orange, and dark cherries.
Mafiosi al Pistacchio and Cosa Nostra alla Mandorla caught my eye.
"Why the Mob names for these pastries?" I ask.
"I like to say that there won't be any more mafia, because we grind 'em up and eat 'em," Roberto answers with a wide smile. "You can defeat evil by laughing, because you shouldn't hit back, am I right?"
Roberto jokes and chats with customers as he fills cannoli and packs pastries into boxes. ("Pay after you eat," Roberto tells one couple as he hands them their cannoli, "when you have a smile on your face.") Visitors from other parts of Italy, and from as far away as America and Australia, buy the more transportable goods to take home as an edible souvenir of their Sicilian holiday. Roberto himself has sent packages of pastries to Bill Clinton when he was president, to the Queen of England, and to the King of Spain (with acknowledgment notes posted on the walls to prove it). "If Hillary wins, I'll send her some too."
I've sampled several of Roberto's other almond and pistachio pastries in summers past, so in the name of research, I gobble down a slice of cassata, and top it off with one more cannolo before departing—just to make sure that it was just as delicious as the one I'd bought at Roberto's bakery the week before. It was.
I'll be back next August to reconfirm.
The winding streets of Taormina are charming, but it can be hard to find anything not located on the main drag, Corso Umberto. For those ready to make their own cannolo pilgrimage, the address is Via Calapitrulli, 9.