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Sicilians Live for Cannoli. How to Make Real Ones

Cannoli. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Cannoli. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Certainly there will be other places where you can get the real thing, but for the authentic cannoli experience, head for the Pasticceria Gelateria Cortina, Via Genuardi 10, just behind the marketplace in Porto Empedocle, where the boats come in for Syracuse, Sicily’s most graceful city port.

You’ll know you’ve found the right place when there are no cannoli visible in the refrigerated glass-fronted display case where the fancy cream cakes are set out for admiration. Italians, particularly Sicilians, adore their dolci, a source of happiness to be taken at any time in the day or night, standing up by a cool counter or at a cafe table in the shade with a glass of water to cut the sugariness.

Cannoli are the quintessential Sicilian dessert

Cannoli, however, are not just any old dolci; they’re a statement of what it means to be Sicilian, a declaration of regional (actually national) identity. Nor are they simply a ladies’ treat, as are so many of the Mediterranean’s sugary little mouthfuls, descendants of the convent sweets prepared by nuns who had the recipes from the pastry cooks of the sultan’s seraglio.

You might think, wandering into a pasticceria in a Sicilian town square, that what the white-shirted lawyer or banker or businessman is holding in a little square of paper is a savory snack, something suitably fortifying for a man such as he — perhaps arancini, the cone-shaped rice fritters that are the quintessential Sicilian fast food. No, what the man of affairs is eating so carefully from one end to the other, taking care not to spill a single crumb on the lapels of his impeccable jacket or mark the gleaming white shirt with a dribble from the crystallized cherry, is a hollow roll of fresh egg-enriched pasta dough slightly longer than a man’s hand, deep fried and filled, just before consumption, with sweetened ricotta.

I had already inspected the array, ordered a coffee and settled on an almond cookie flavored with aniseed before I noticed the gentlemen in dark suits eating what I had hoped to find in the cabinet.

Could I have what the signori were having?

Syracuse harbor. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Syracuse harbor. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Indeed I could.

The young woman behind the bar disappeared through a bead curtain. A few minutes later she reappeared.

Va bene cosî?”  (Is it OK like this?)

The cannoli, carefully cocooned in its little paper nest, was offered across the counter in her hand. The audience of dark-suited gentlemen nodded approvingly. Cannoli must be eaten from the hand, was the general consensus. And they must be freshly prepared and consumed standing up.

And furthermore, the audience continued, I should know that the distinctive shape achieved by wrapping a circular piece of dough around an aluminum tube before lowering it into the frying oil was derived from the original mold. This was a Sicilian marsh reed identical to Egyptian papyrus — though some might dispute this. I could judge for myself as the reeds were still grown and harvested for roofing, matting and providing shade for commercially grown tomato plants. This same reed, split at the thick end and woven into a cup shape, also once served as a draining basket for ricotta.

Making ricotta. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Making ricotta. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

And if I wanted to taste fresh ricotta made in the old way, there was a contadino who made it most evenings at Donnafugata, a little hamlet below the famous castle, a tourist attraction whose popularity allowed the enterprise to make enough money from demonstrations and sales to support a precious herd of red-coated cattle of the old Sicilian breed, big-boned beasts whose milk yield was sustained through the summer on carob pods harvested from trees planted by the Arabs.

In addition, should I care to pay the ricotta maker a visit and put forward my request, his neighbor Carla — family name unknown — would show me how to prepare cannoli. Which indeed is what she did.

Carla’s Cannoli

These were the Sunday treat in Sicilian farmhouses for those who made ricotta fresh Saturdays, said Carla, as everyone did in the old days with the whey from the cheesemaking. And to fill a batch of cannoli for a party, she added, you need plenty. If you don’t have the proper molds, you may cut the pasta into any shape you please and fry as cookies to eat with ice cream. Either way, the dough makes very good crisp cookies that keep well in a tin.

Makes 24 cannoli (or thereabouts)


For the pastry:

1 kilogram (2 pounds) double zero pasta flour

100 grams (4 ounces) finely pounded cane sugar

100 grams (4 ounces) unsalted butter (or pork lard)

About 100 milliliters (¼ pint) marsala wine

Frying oil

For the filling:

2 kilograms (4 pounds) fresh ricotta, drained

400 grams (7 ounces) icing sugar

1 egg, beaten (also a fingertip of egg for the pastry)


1. Heap the flour onto a board and mix in the sugar.

2. Work in the butter or lard cut in small bits and add enough wine to make a softish dough.

3. Roll out like pasta dough using a pasta roller or a long, thin rolling pin. The result should be a little thicker than homemade pasta.

4. Make a template with paper by rolling it around an aluminum cannoli mold and cut out a cardboard template to match.

5. Brush the molds with melted lard or butter or oil (not as effective).

6. Use the template to cut the paste to the right-sized oval, wrap it around the mold and stick the overlap together with a fingertip of egg.

7. Drop the whole thing into boiling oil; wait till the pasta is puffed and brown, then remove with draining spoon to kitchen paper.

8. Wait till a little cooled before slipping off the mold. You need at least 4 molds to avoid going crazy. Continue till all the mixture is used up.

9. Sieve the well-drained ricotta, mix in the sugar, then sieve again. (Or beat with a whisk as for whipping cream till glossy.) Use this to stuff the cannoli just before serving or they’ll be soggy.

Optional embellishments: Dip the ends in crushed pistachios, of which the best are  grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, or finish with a crystallized cherry at one end and a sliver of candied quince at the other.

Top photo: Cannoli. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.

  • nancy Harmon Jenkins 8·6·13

    Great piece, Elisabeth! It made me want to be in Sicily once again. My own favorite spot is in the little pentagonal town of Grammichele, just north of Chiaramonte Gulfi, in a cafe in the main piazza where, as you noted, the crispy cannoli rolls are filled with ricotta cream at the very last moment to preserve that extraordinary contrast between soft and crunch that is so essential. Thanks for the memory–and for your lovely watercolors too.

  • Sue Style 7·27·14

    Only just caught up, belatedly, with this lovely piece Elisabeth, thank you so much. We’re off down there with the family in September – cannoli @ PG Cortina are now firmly on the list.