I've been to Philadelphia thrice and each time I go back to what has become the city's favourite photo opp. Instagram Reels have made it a video opp - the 72 steps that lead to the Philadelphia Art Museum that dates back to 1876. The Rocky Steps in Philadelphia have become a cultural symbol of sorts ever since Sylvester Stallone made them popular in his Rocky franchise. You run up and down the steps and then end up posing with the Rocky statue near the steps. It's now a quintessential ingredient in the Rocky Trail that connects the different dots in the Rocky films and the Creed movies of the 2010s. It was this trail that took me to one of America's most iconic markets where I re-discovered one of my favourite Italian pastries.
While the 72 steps are not much of an effort, most Instagrammers forget that Rocky ran through the streets of Philadelphia before making the up and down run. You will see multiple scenes where he pounds the pavement as he runs past the Italian Market, one of the oldest and largest open-air markets in America. In a country that gave us the supermarket, this market is a throwback to another era when fresh food reigned supreme. Aside from fresh vegetables, meats and fish, the market is also home to speciality shops and bakeries.
The first Italian immigrants arrived in Philadelphia in 1884 and the market opened soon after. These immigrants also brought authentic recipes all the way from Italy that continue to shape Philadelphia's reputation as one of the best cities for Italian cuisine outside Italy. The Termini Brothers - Giuseppe and Gaetano, were among the earliest immigrants, they set up Termini Brothers Bakery in 1921. A hundred years later, I sunk my teeth into the finest Cannoli I've ever tried in America at Termini Brothers Bakery. My friend Gina from Naples who now lives in America is quick to correct me - "It's cannolo. Cannoli is the plural form".
While the Philadelphia Cannoli story might be just over a century old, the pastry's original backstory goes back over a thousand years. There are at least two origin theories and both of them take is back to the city of Caltanissetta in Sicily during the time of the Arab domination of the region. Many historians agree that the dish has its origins in the harems of the emirs where their wives created unique culinary delicacies including the Cannoli. The other tale takes us to a convent in Sicily where nuns are believed to have created a pastry made with a shell called scoria that is filled with ricotta, sugar and almonds to celebrate Carnevale, a celebration that precedes Lent. Most Sicilians concur that the Cannoli have been part of their food heritage since somewhere between 827 and 1091 AD.
Cannoli translates to 'little tube' in Sicilian. You get the finger-size cannulicchi as well as the larger-sized portions found in Palermo, the largest city in Sicily. Across Sicily, many bakeries build their reputation on their Cannoli. Many Italian immigrants who moved to America began tweaking the original recipe. Sheep's milk ricotta was substituted with mascarpone while newer variations include chocolate, pecan caramel and strawberry fillings. While I still swear by the Termini Brothers version that is handmade by the fourth generation of the family, I also discovered another terrific version at Gran Caffe L'Aquila. This entire restaurant was designed and built in Italy and shipped over for installation in Philadelphia.
It might be a simple dessert with a few ingredients but it's the attention to detail that makes all the difference. I watched the team at the Park Hyatt Chennai create cannoli from scratch (see recipe). These tube shapes of fried pastry dough are usually filled with ricotta - a Sicilian staple but it has become common to use mascarpone cheese (like in our recipe). At Termini Brothers, they still make every cannolo with the original tools from the 1920s and are hand-pinned. You will find rows of shells at the bakery that are filled on the spot just after you place your order.
"Leave the gun take the Cannoli" - That's one of the most famous lines from The Godfather that just celebrated 50 years of its release. You can interpret it as 'Always take only the sweet things with you into the future'. I always take the Cannoli when I'm in Philadelphia. You can try this recipe at home or make it to Sicily or Philly for the real thing.
Recipe for Cannoli
Courtesy: Pastry Chef Gabriel Rajan, Park Hyatt Chennai
- Flour = 600gm
- Salt = 5gm
- Sugar = 100gm
- Cinnamon powder = 5gm
- Egg white = 3nos
- Red wine = 100ml (dough)
- Mix dry ingredients.
- Add wine and egg and mix together.
- Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover and rest the dough.
- Heat oil in a pot.
- Roll the dough out very thin on a flour surface.
- Cut into rounds or ovals (about 4 inches each).
- Wrap rounds around greased cannoli forms, brush top or bottom edge with egg white to seal shut.
- Fry in preheated oil until golden brown and crisp, about 1 - 2 minutes.
- Remove cannoli shells and drain them on paper towels.
- Remove shells from forms, let forms cool and repeat the process.
- Let shells cool completely then fill with cannoli filling and dip the sides in roasted nuts and serve
- Mascarpone cheese = 200g
- Icing sugar = 40g
- Vanilla extract = 2ml
- Mix the mascarpone cheese and icing sugar gently.
- Incorporate the extract and pipe the filling in shells.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.