The Whole Cannoli

The Cannoli one of the world’s great pastry inventions, is sold throughout Italy but is never called merely a cannoli. Everywhere, it’s given its full name: canolli of Sicily. And everywhere, everyone says, “This is a good cannoli, but it’s not a real cannoli. For a real cannoli you have to go to Sicily.”
So when I got to Sicily, I tried a cannoli, and it was different from other cannolis: less sweet, more delicate, somehow more filled with its ricotta filling, with a subtle flavor I couldn’t identify, but that I could recognize right away. Because there’s a bakery in South Philadelphia that makes cannolis that taste exactly like the real cannolis from Sicily.

Which is not surprising, because Gus Sarno, of Isgro Pastries at 1009 Christian St., makes cannolis exactly the way his grandfather taught him. And his grandfather came from Messina, Sicily, to found the family business in 1904. More than 80 years of making cannolis, and the recipe has never been written down. It’s too secret for that. I sit with Gus in the spotless, pleasantly old-fashioned kitchen behind the store eating cannolis and drinking strong black coffee, while Gus tells me about cannoli secrets – watermelon rind, chocolatinis, why cannoli shells have to be spoon-filled to order, and about the life of his grandfather, “which is like a romance.”

“My grandfather left home when he was 12. There was a count in his neighborhood this is the 1800s – and he used to go look in the window and watch the chefs. The count caught him at it and put him to work in the kitchen. In those days, chefs were very suspicious; they wouldn’t teach him anything. But he spied on them and learned. Finally, the count sent him to school, and he came back to be head chef of the count’s whole kitchen. Then he saved his money, came to America started a bakery, and then, like all the other Italians, saved more money and brought his whole family over, a little bit at a time.

“My grandfather could do anything connected with food. Ice sculpture. I remember when I was a little kid, 20, 25 minutes, he’d make a swan, a fish, anything. Easter he made lambs – life-size! – out of marzipan. One time we made a cake in the shape of a battleship for a party at the Navy yard. He had all these strings running down from the smoke stacks to the decksails, all of them edible. He spun them out of sugar. He loved the business so much. He’d go to other bakeries, he’d help them decorate, he’d teach them how to make things. But not everything.

“The secrets he kept for the family. My grandfather never wrote anything down. Everything he did was from memory. I wrote some of his recipes down. Certain cakes we only make once a year. I go to the recipe, refresh my memory. My grandfather just pulled out the pans and baked. But the cannoli recipe has never been written down. Not everybody knows it. I do, my uncle Sam lsgro, my uncle Vito Isgro. That’s all. My mother doesn’t know the cannoli recipe. We make it at night, when everybody else’s gone home. It’s a relatively simple recipe At least, when I see recipes for cannoli filling in magazines or books, they have stuff in there I would never dream of putting in. But it’s very precise. Things have to be combined exactly the right moment. It changes with the weather, and once in a very great while, it doesn’t come out right. Maybe we do something wrong, miss that crucial minute. Then I send word upstairs that there’s no cannolis that day – better not to have them than sell something that’s not right.”

Gus is not about to share the secret of his cannoli filling, but he is willing to talk about why they taste different. They’re less sweet “because the sweetness comes from the ricotta. People get tempted to put a lot of sugar in because sugar is a lot cheaper.”

They’re filled to order when you buy them – and filled with a spoon, not a pastry bag. “It takes longer but you get more filling. With a spoon, you’re packing it in, wedging it. A spoon is better. My grandfather did it that way. My grandmother wouldn’t have a pastry bag in the house. Holidays, the whole family worked at it. You didn’t open presents Christmas morning. You went downstairs and started spoon-filling cannolis. We had people standing in line waiting around the block. Finally, holidays got to be too much. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, we bag-fill cannolis. We couldn’t do it otherwise. But only those four days a year. Otherwise the cannoli is spoon-filled right in front of your eyes.”

Isgro cannolis have chocolate bits – “Chocolatinis, smaller than chocolate chips, but pure chocolate. No chemicals, no artificial flavors.”

If you ask for it, Isgro cannolis have zucca. “Zucca is preserved watermelon rind. The traditional filling. We use it only on request – some people don’t like the flavor. Mostly the old people are the ones that want it. Some people put citron in their cannolis but it’s hard, it’s got a different bite, it’s not zucca. When I was a kid, I remember my grandfather used to have to make his own zucca So he’d buy a truckload of watermelons, and then have a watermelon party. Invite everybody in the neighborhood to come eat out the middles. They were great parties, I still remember them. But now I can get Italian zucca. I have to go to New York for it. It’s expensive; the suppliers laugh at me. They say nobody uses this stuff. Not everybody likes it, so you get your cannoli without, unless you ask. But it’s the traditional cannoli. My grandfather used it. I have to have it.”

Isgro’s cannolis, filled with or without zucca before your very eyes so the skins are always crisp and fresh, cost 85 cents. Extraordinary butter cookies are less than $5 a pound. Isgro’s version of casaata is $8.95, a delicious rum-soaked sponge cake iced entirely with ricotta. “It’s expensive,” Gus says, “and you can only get so fancy with a ricotta icing. But we could never use butter cream on an Italian pastry.” Try the big chewy macaroons, kept in a separate glass jar, so their almond flavor doesn’t get into the other cookies. And if you want an adventure for less than a dollar, try a cannoli with zucca. That’s the way they taste in Sicily.

By Jim Quinn, featured in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” March 2, 1986