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What is a Cannoli: Explained


Mike’s Pastry Famous Cannoli
Mike’s Pastry

If you’ve ever visited an Italian bakery, also called a pasticceria, then you’ve most likely seen cannoli front-and-center. This legendary Italian pastry is one of the most famous and iconic desserts to come out of Italy, and it’s also a staple at Italian restaurants across the country. But what is a cannoli, exactly, and how is it made?

What is a Cannoli, Exactly?

First things first, the word “cannoli” is actually plural. If you’ve spent any time studying Italian, than you already know that the singular form of cannoli is “cannolo” (and yes, this means that “spaghetti” is also plural; a single spaghetti strand is called a “spaghetto”). 

Historians have traced cannoli’s roots to the Palermo and Messina areas of Sicily, in the time period of approximately the year 1000 AD. During this time, the island was ruled by Arabs, and the word itself may have derived from the Arabic word qanawāt, meaning “tubes.” The word “cannoli” itself translated from Italian into “little tubes.” Perhaps not coincidentally, several Middle Eastern desserts resemble cannoli. 

Over the years, cannoli came to be associated with Sicily’s Carnival season (which immediately precedes Lent), possibly as a fertility symbol. Their popularity spread from Sicily to the rest of Italy, and then to the United States with the millions of Italian immigrants who came over in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And once America got a taste, it couldn’t get enough. 

Mik's Pastry Famous Cannoli Kit
Mike’s Pastry
Mike's Pastry
Mike’s Pastry

How Are Cannoli Made?

Cannoli start with a crunchy shell, which is made by shaping a circle of dough around a cylinder and deep-frying it for a few minutes until crisp and crunchy. Dough ingredients include: 

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Salt
  • A pinch of cinnamon
  • A splash of Madeira wine

After cooling, these shells are occasionally coated with melted chocolate for an extra indulgence.

What is the Filling in a Cannoli Made of?

These shells are filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta-based filling. Recipes for this filling can vary, but traditionally include: 

  • Fresh whole milk ricotta 
  • Powdered sugar
  • Whipped cream
  • Warming spices including cinnamon and allspice
  • Chocolate chips, occasionally

A piping bag is used to fill the shell; the filling is usually added at both ends in order to make sure it’s filled the whole way through. After the cannoli are filled, the dessert is usually finished with a dusting of powdered sugar. It’s best to fill the shells immediately or shortly before serving; if the filling sits inside the shell for too long, it can cause the shell to become a little soggy.

Ferrara Bakery’s Plain & Belgian Chocolate Cannoli
Ferrara Bakery’s Plain & Belgian Chocolate Cannoli
Venieros Classic Chocolate Cannoli
Veniero’s Classic Cannoli

What Types of Cannoli Are There?

While some pastry shops flavor the filling with espresso or chocolate, the main differences in types of cannoli are in the adornment. Cannoli ends can be dunked in mini chocolate chips, crushed nuts including pistachios or almonds, or candied citrus peel. Many Italian pastry shops will have several varieties of cannoli on offer. A lesser-known type of cannoli, called Venetian cannoli, has a flaky puff pastry shell and is filled with vanilla or chocolate custard instead of ricotta.
The classic flavors and textures of cannoli can also be translated into a cake or pie. The Cannoli Pie Co., for example, fills a cannoli shell crust with cannoli cream and tops it with chocolate chips and cannoli shell crumbles. 

Is Cannoli a Dessert or Breakfast Food?

In short, both! While cannoli are most commonly consumed as dessert alongside an espresso, they also make for a lovely breakfast, accompanied by a cup of coffee or cappuccino.

Is Cannoli Served Hot or Cold?

Cannoli are always served cold or at room temperature. If the filling is added while the shell is still warm, it can cause the filling to melt.

America’s Best Cannoli

Mike's Pastry Cannolis

The Most Famous: Mike’s Pastry

Mike’s Pastry is one of Boston’s most famous Italian bakeries. Located in the city’s historic North End since 1946, it’s a renowned destination for all things Italian, including lobster tail pastries and all types of cookies, but their cannoli are what really put them on the map. The shells are made in-house, and they’re finished with chocolate chips, pistachios, and powdered sugar.

Ferrara Bakery Plain Cannoli

The Classic: Ferrara Bakery

Ferrara is New York City’s most famous Italian bakery, a Little Italy must-visit since its founding in 1892. Many of its recipes remain unchanged since then, including their cannoli. Which are filled with sweet ricotta that’s studded with mini chocolate chips and small cubes of candied citron for a pit of tanginess.

Caffe Palermo Cannoli

“The Cannoli King”: Caffe Palermo

New York’s Caffe Palermo has been going strong since 1973, and its cannoli have been voted the best in New York City by the Daily News. Their signature mini cannoli are super-crisp on the outside, and super-creamy on the inside.

If you don’t have a great Italian bakery in your backyard, a great cannoli is just a click away! America’s best cannoli are shipping nationwide. Discover them all here!