The reedy man behind the counter of the tiny Italian pasticceria wore a too-small white hat and a scruffy beard. His middle-aged wife, dressed in a dark, typical house dress, eyed me from the back of the shop. The dimly lit space sold dense, sweet cookies made from local honey, candied orange peel, and cannoli, all specialties of the region. I wished them each a good morning in Italian and ordered a cannoli. I was corrected: cannolo (the singular). Originating in Sicily, the cannolo is the island’s most familiar pastry export. Originally made only during Carnival, they are now a proud daily tradition.
And here I was about to breakfast on one from a famed shop in the historic center of Modica, a small medieval town in Sicily’s heartland. But before I could partake, I apparently had to ask for it correctly. Satisfied by my language lesson, the man disappeared into the back kitchen to fill my cannolo by hand, as is done for each one ordered. Seems it’s sacrilege to order a pre-made cannolo out of a case, as the delectable ‘little tube’ (the Sicilian meaning) is at its optimum a mere three hours after being filled before the crust softens from the filling.
Each pasticceria has its own cannolo recipe so there exist thousands of variations. The ricotta filling, made each day, can range from savory to sweet; some use ewe’s milk, a specialty of the island, but most ricotta is made from cow’s milk. Some are studded with pistachio and some with candied orange peel, both local delicacies.
The pastry dough producing the tube-shaped shells contains a splash of the island’s famed Marsala wine and are fried in lard, adding that extra layer of complexity and crunch. Fuck the calories. During the short time the hot crust remains flexible, it is rolled around a stainless steel tube. Until recently, it was rolled around sugar canna (a bamboo plant related to sugar cane), which absorbed the excess oil and shaped the shell, but stainless steel was deemed more hygienic.
There was a shell the size of a newborn baby on the counter in front of me and I briefly considered ordering it, but realized what I SHOULD be ordering was the ‘cannulicchi’, which is no bigger than a finger. Instead, I settled for a traditional cannolo, which the Magic-Maker presented to me on a bright yellow paper napkin with a fine dusting of powdered sugar and chopped pistachios from Mount Etna decorating each end.
I walked outside and leaned against a shaded wall, still cool in the early morning, and licked the ricotta cream, more succulent than sweet, from each end before biting into its shell; light and airy and divine. I went back to the little shop the next two mornings for that very fine cannolo. Since the Magic-Maker and his wife don’t speak a word of English, all I could say loudly is ‘Cannolo bellisimo’. He stared at me and smiled, but I’m sure he and his wife had a good laugh when I departed their little shop, cannolo in hand.