Cannoli

When Clemenza told Rocco to “leave the gun, take the cannoli” in The Godfather movie back in 1972, it was perhaps the most sinister portrayal of the festive pastry in cinematic history. That is, until Don Altobello met his absurd fate via poisoned cannoli in 1990’s The Godfather Part III.

Like the gangsters portrayed in the Godfather series, cannoli came to the U.S. from Sicily along with the migration of Italians at the turn of the century. And like most food history, the backstory is murky. The most common tale in cannoli lore is that it was created by the Saracens when Sicily was under Arabic rule. A variation has it that cannoli were made by the women of Moorish harems as some sort of phallic tribute to their Sultan.

What’s without dispute is that a true cannoli consists of a tubular, deep-fried shell filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and bejeweled with candied fruit at each end—usually a cherry or orange peel. Sometimes you’ll find cannoli trimmed with crushed pistachio.

While variations have developed over the years, there are a few characteristics that define an authentic cannoli. Firstly, the shell must be crunchy. Contrast between the crunchy shell and the creamy filling is the whole point. Secondly, the filling should consist of sheep’s milk ricotta cheese. That’s because its nutty distinction and richness simply can’t be found in cow’s milk.

To experience this to the fullest, you’ll have to go to Sicily. In Palermo, the cannoli capital of the world, the mountain grass gives the unpasteurized sheep’s milk a unique quality worth the pastry pilgrimage. And the Sicilians know not to add too much sugar or vanilla. Visit Pasticceria Scimone or Caffè Spinnato. Both places elevate the lowly cannoli to high epicurean art.

Here in the states, many pay lip service to old-world tradition, but few follow through as well as Pane Pasta in New York City’s Greenwich Village. They use sheep’s milk ricotta rather than cow and are careful not to make the cannoli too sweet—an unfortunate pitfall of many Italian-American bakeries.

In your quest for the perfect cannoli, beware imposters, and don’t even think about buying a cannoli filled with custard. A mistake like that could get you whacked.

Gourmet

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