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Grana Padano

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli”. “There is no better morsel in the world”

Cannolo

Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, words of Pete Clemenza in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972) that by now are a cult, a part of the history of the most luscious Sicilian sweets, a masterpiece of Italian pasticceria. Cannoli, the delicious dolce that consists of a fried, rolled, crumbly crust (scorza, crosta o buccia), traditionally obtained by rolling the dough around a tube, frying it in pork lard and filling it with sheep ricotta cheese, candied fruits and chocolate drops, was quite a protagonist of that hugely successful movie.
In the third part of the same saga, Ozzie Altobello, another don, is a victim of his fondness for cannoli siciliani: he dies, while watching the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, after eating some that had been poisoned by his goddaughter (Connie Corleone).

The famous scene of The Godfather
The famous scene of The Godfather

A hundred years before the movie, in Italy, it would have been rather improbable that it could happen. Firstly, because no one ever ate cannoli at the opera house and, secondly, because they were feasted upon only during Carnival, a period running from January 17th untill 40 days before Easter (Mardi Gras). However, in the recent decades though, cannoli have been consumed all year round.

Cannolo

“Beautiful Carnival Cannoli, there is no better morsel in the world,” (“Beddi cannuola di Carnivali, megghiu vuccuni a lu munnu un ci nn’è,”) states a vernacular 19th century Sicilian poem. It continues with: “Cui nun ni mancia, si fazza ammazzari, Cui li disprezza è un gran cornuto affè.” In other words: “Those who don’t eat them deserve to go to the hell, those who despise them are cuckolds.”

Made originally throughout Sicily, the beautiful southern Italian region-island, cannoli are now usualy found in the rest of Italy too. In Palermo they are finished with candied cherries or oranges on both sides, while in other parts of Sicily some pistachio powder is added.

Cannolo

You can tell if a cannolo is good when it has a fresh crumbly crust with its peculiar blisters, which are obtained by adding some alcohol – Marsala, white wine or even Vermouth – to the dough. Cannoli must be filled with the ricotta mix shortly before consumption. The contrast of texture plays an important role in its correct appreciation, as well as the original ingredients. Cannoli filled with cream, mascarpone cheese, or even custard – common usages in the US – are not cannoli, that is, they have nothing to do with the authentic tradition.

Where the name ‘cannoli’ comes from? There are various not proven answers; the most reliable one relates the word ‘cannolo’ to ‘canna’ (cane), since in the old times the dough was rolled around a piece of cane and not a metallic tube, as they are now, and then fried. When was the first cannolo made? While cassata alla siciliana, the other famous sweet born on the Southern Italian Island, has an inventor and a date of birth, there is no historic evidence of the origin of cannoli. In the 1st century bC, the Roman writer Marcus Tullius Cicero mentions a ‘tubus farinarius’ (a pipe made with flour), made with milk and of a very sweet taste that he ate in Sicily while he was a Roman Commissioner there.

Cannolo

That ‘tubus’ could possibly be the ancestor of the sweet we have today, though in those times there were neither sugar nor candied fruit. In reality, cannoli may well be among those foods of pastoral origins made with honey (as traditional cassata al forno) that changed when the Arabs arrived in Sicily and introduced sugar cane in the 10th century. Various authors agree on the Arabic roots of cannoli, as for instance Alberto Denti di Pirajno who, in his book Siciliani a tavola (Sicilians to the Table), wrote: “The cannolo is not a Christian sweet, because the variety of flavours and the exuberance of the composition betray a clear Islamic origin.” Apparently, the Arab forerunner of the cannolo, was a sweet that had the shape of a banana filled with almonds and sugar. According to Denti di Pirajno, cannoli were created by nuns in a Convent in Caltanissetta, another town of the Region of Sicily; when the Arabs were vanquished by the Normans in the 11th century. There are very creative conjectures on what could have happened: these nuns could have possibly been former concubines of Arab lords, who prepared these sweets in the harems. When their Lords had to leave they converted to Catholicism, became nuns, and took their recipes with them to the convents. It’s not likely that history actually took this course and even if it did, those cannoli were not like the ones we know today.

Sicilian candied fruits
Sicilian candied fruits

Candied fruit, a preservation technique and another legacy of the Arabs, became rather commonly used only in the 16th century. So, it’s improbable that candied orange, pumpkin (zuccata or cucuzzata in Sicilian) or cherries, were part of either the filling or the decoration before that time. Nor was chocolate scantly known in Italy before the 18th century. In any case cannoli (still made in some Convents today) were highly sought-after, with or without these ingredients.

Each cannolo is a king’s sceptre,” says the already mentioned popular poem, which reminds us of another attribute of the sweet: “The cannolo is Moses’ stick.” (“Lu cannolo è la virga di Moisè.”) There is a plain double meaning in the expression; as the Sicilian author Giuseppe Coria makes clear in his studies, the cannolo clearly represents a phallic shape. In this sense, it has been compared to the steles and menhirs of the Druids, both symbols of fertility. It’s useful to remember here that Italian Carnival, the period in which cannoli were eaten, was full of phallic allusions. As a symbol of fertility the cannolo was seen as a kind of protection against evil spirits.

Cannolo

Cannoli are given to friends and relatives as gifts by the dozen or multiples thereof. There is no universal size for cannoli, they can be very small as the cannolicchi of Piana degli Albanesi, where every year a Sagra del Cannolo is organized during Carnival. The longest cannolo ever made, 4,03 metres, was presented at the Sagra of 2003. Piana degli Albanesi belongs to a group of 42 towns, in the areas of Alto Belice, Valle del Torto and Valle dei Feudi,  led by the University of Messina, that are working on obtaining the DOC, the denomination of protected origin, for Sicilian cannoli made in the traditional way.

Rosario Scarpato