I had never thought of a cannolo (‘cannolo’ is one, ‘cannoli’ any number higher than that) as an artisanal product before, not remotely. To be honest, I never much think of cannoli at all, their flavour has always been too sweet and rich for me. (I’ve always appreciated Hemingway’s saying, that dessert is for people that don’t drink enough).
And aside from impromptu birthday parties, I tend to treat pastry shops the way I do tattoo parlors and off-track betting places. I just ignore them, assuming that someone must be frequenting them. My vices have always lay elsewhere.
All of that changed today though, when I stumbled into Fratelli Rosciglione’s Dessert Laboratory, where cannoli are still made exactly like they have been since long before Italy was ever even Italy.
Domenico Rosciglione couldn’t be nicer, nor more eager to walk us through the process. ‘We’ve been at this for a hundred and seventy years’, he says when I ask, his hands going about their business disconnected from the rest of him.
‘I’ve got 11 siblings and all of them do something or other for the business’, he said. He’s a gentle soul, shy in that way that many artisans are, when you spend a lot of time locked away from others perfecting the craft.
The actual process is easy and the tools couldn’t be more pragmatic, such as these wooden dowels that have been used and reused longer than anyone can remember.
The ingredients are cake flour, water, sugar, vinegar, cocoa and vanilla.
‘The cocoa and sugar give the colour and a little bit of flavour’, he says. And in fact the raw pasta is brown, as if made of buckwheat.
‘And the vinegar’?
‘The pocks’, he says. With his shy smile you could be easily persuaded into thinking that he thought of the technique himself.
The pasta is rolled out into squares and wrapped around the dowels, all of it by hand.
The raw cannoli spend two minutes in boiling strutto, or rendered pig lard. The smell coming off the rolling liquid is porcine and gorgeous.
Saliva pools in my mouth at the perfume of the bubbling liquid. It’s heady, and it recalls more of the smell of kitchens in Mexico and South America.
Right out of the fat, the cannoli are boxed for shipping, even before they cool.
Just before serving they’ll be filled with sweetened ricotta. Sometimes chocolate chips mixed in. Sometimes candied fruit
Rarely in life are businesses labeled so honestly. The ‘Dessert laboratory’ is exactly that, an artisan’s work shop, adding a new twist in my mind to a dessert WAY too sweet for my tastes.
I decide that I need to have one..
I bite into one and taste the sweetened sheep’s milk ricotta. It’s so sweet that it makes my jaw ache. Energy bars for humming birds.I wrap up the second half in thin caffè napkins from the chrome dispenser and take it to go.Saluting Domenico and his brother Enzo behind the counter I mentally make a note, that cannoli are again like tattoos in that the same questions can be asked: Did it hurt and how much did it cost.
A Euro-25, and nothing that three black espressos can’t fix. No, no sugar please. I’ve had enough sugar to make me vibrate for a week.
But, clearly, I am not normal. Folks four deep line up and are buying the things by the cardboard rack. As I step out into the street a woman straightens her jacket before entering, as if about to appear on television rather than just to order a favourite dessert. The last thing I hear are the steady sound of wooden dowels being pulled from crispy cannoli, one at a time hitting the box, the glee of those in line strong enough to power a small city.