I ate it before lunch because I was there and wouldn’t be tomorrow. When she said ‘vi faccio subito’ — I’ll make them straightaway — I knew this cannolo wouldn’t taste like the concrete-filled versions I grew up with.
For many American tourists, the cannolo — or Americanized singular cannoli — epitomises Italian pastry. But following the American Grand Tour of Rome-Florence-Venice won’t yield any. At least not any good ones. That’s because the cannolo — and all manner of ricotta stuffed pastries — hails from Sicily. While certain foods have banished their provincial affiliations to become symbols of italianità — like pizza, tiramisu and risotto — others have stayed within regional borders. Asking for un cannolo in a mainland pasticceria yields a light, flaky pastry stuffed with cream as opposed to the crisp, chocolate-chip and ricotta filled dessert familiar to Americans. In Italy, the cannolo’s territory is Sicily.
Accustomed to choosing a crostatina over a cannolo, I didn’t think of them until my final day in Palermo when I found myself standing in front of Fratelli Rosciglione on the edge of the city’s gritty Piazza Ballarò market. A small, graffiti covered sign advertises Rosciglione on the rundown residential street. Appearances don’t improve inside. Empty metal tables gleam where you expect to see pastries on display. Only flimsy plastic boxes of cookies suggest you’ve entered a pastry shop. There were none of the Italian-bakery symbols from my youth. There was nothing that prepared me for a cannolo.
Then it arrived. The woman behind the counter brought out my pastry on a cracked plastic tray. She placed it down and asked for the money with such nonchalance that I realized serving a la minute cannoli was to her as normal as eating leaden, pre-packaged pastries was to me.
I waited until I was outside to begin. My teeth pierced the crunchy shell, still light from frying. The sweet, tangy ricotta dissolved like frosting. Occasionally a mini-chocolate chip offered rich relief. Then, just as I hesitated to take my first bite, I reluctantly ate my last. This wasn’t the cannoli I grew up with. It was un cannolo siciliano. It was the best thing I ate in Sicily.