A perfect cannoli is a light, crispy shell that crunches when you bite into it, revealing the lightly sweet, creamy ricotta cheese filling. But although these classic desserts are a fixture at Italian restaurants in America, a cannoli lover is often disappointed by a soggy shell suffering under a wet, too-sweet filling, or a too-hard shell that resists the first bite, then shatters. So, what is the key to a perfect, traditional Italian cannoli?
“Math, science, and art go into a cannoli,” according to Tony Ricca – and he would know. As the owner of New Jersey’s Cannoli World, LLC, Ricca (who is also a former WWE professional wrestler) serves the old-fashioned, handmade Italian cannoli that his family has been making since his father started a bakery upon his return from the Korean War and years prior to that.
Growing up working in his father’s bakery, Ricca learned that the key to an authentic cannoli was to make everything by hand. “I grew up in the business in the 70s and 80s,” he said, “But even though I wrestled in the 90s, every time I was back, I was still back there working when I was home for a couple of days.” Thanks to this deep commitment to tradition, today, all parts of a Cannoli World cannoli are still made from scratch. “It's everything that we do,” Ricca says, “We make it because, growing up, that's what we did.”
In Italy, a traditional cannoli might be filled with cow or sheep’s milk ricotta cheese, so Cannoli World makes their sweet cheese filling from scratch. Is it made from a blend of both milks? Ricca says this extra fuss sets his cannolis apart from other, mass-produced ones, because the fusion of the homemade filling and the shell give his authentic flavor. “The shell is made a certain way, and that's why it has to work with the filling. The filling has to be mixed in a certain way. If you don't mix it correctly, that can really make the difference between a true traditional cannoli and just a regular cannoli. And, you know, I don't knock anyone with a cannoli. It's just that ours is just very different. You know when you're tasting someone else's, from the shell to the filling.”
Understandably, Ricca keeps some of his tricks to himself, but he explains the components of the shells: flour, eggs, a touch of cinnamon, and wine. He does reveal one unexpected ingredient: vinegar. A certain vinegar blend. “There is a little bit of vinegar,” he says. “A very little bit of vinegar helps put the bubbles on the shell… People like that because it helps with that crunch.” Since pre-packaged cannoli shells from Italy often don’t have visible bubbles, Ricca says that some people often don’t believe or understand that traditional Sicilian shells include this vinegar, “But, well, I'm Sicilian. I make the shells. I have my DNA to prove it.”
When developing his own traditional Olde World Cannoli®, Ricca was inspired by cannolis from “the deep valleys of Sicily, not just the bakery shops there, but really from the homeland. The villages, the family itself that makes them at home. That's the reason we have the Olde World Cannoli. And we created it … we needed something that brought up the real Old World, that old style, the traditional style.”
Growing up, Ricca worked alongside bakers from around the world (Sicilian, Jewish, French, Cuban, and others) who shared his father’s kitchen. “Of course,” he says, “most of them had a few different tweaks to the way they do things.” Ricca integrated many things he learned into his signature cannolis, much like the very first cannolis were created through trade and cultural exchange. Although they were perfected in Sicily, the original cannoli shell was actually developed in the Arab world and filled with things like sweet fruits and nuts, but not dairy. “This shell made its way to Sicily,” he says, “to Messina and Palermo, and that's when they started filling it with cheese and fruits. That's how they created the cannoli. The Sicilians actually put the cheese in it and created the actual cannoli itself, the dessert, what the cannoli is today.”
Ricca’s traditional cannoli is the canvas where he combines Italian tradition with the flavors and ingredients of the USA. The award-winning Olde World Cannoli, the Traditional, with a sweet cheese filling and mini chocolate chips, is Cannoli World’s number one seller, and his customers also love original varieties (flavors) like The Blueberry Capital of the World (with marinated blueberries grown in Hammonton, New Jersey) and Cookies and Cream (filled with chocolate cookies and homemade buttercream).
Ricca’s Italian Rum Cake Cannoli highlights the varieties of this traditional and extremely popular Italian cake (“the Italian rum cake is the birthday cake of Italy,” Ricca says), with homemade vanilla and chocolate Italian creams, rum, toasted almonds, candied cherries, and bits of sponge cake. Featuring these traditional varieties in a totally new way, the Italian Rum Cake Cannoli is Cannoli World’s highly popular award-winning variety. Ricca even served these cannolis to the cast of Jersey Shore at Mike and Lauren Sorrentino’s wedding and their guests during the TV taping of “The Hitch-uation” Jersey Shore Vacation TV series. Mike and Lauren Sorrentino specifically asked for Ricca and his Olde World Cannolis. “The Italian Rum Cake was the one thing,” he says. “They really wanted that cannoli. So that was a big thing for their wedding.” With more than two dozen varieties on their mini menu and more than hundreds to choose from, Cannoli World, LLC has the widest variety selection of any cannoli shop in the USA, ships cannolis nationwide and worldwide, and even drives the first cannoli food truck to events.
Throughout our conversation, I discovered the keys to an Italian cannoli: learning from the best, making ingredients by hand and with love, and being willing to try new things while respecting tradition. At Cannoli World, LLC, Ricca will continue to blend classic Italian techniques and craftsmanship with new varieties, flavors and technologies, passing on his family’s cannolis to the next generation.