In Sicily: In search of the world’s best cannoli

The cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro must be held to be believed.

The cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro must be held to be believed.

CROCCI, Italy — It was Columbus Day Monday, that day when Americans argue over whether Italy’s finest explorer, Christopher Columbus, discovered America or was it the indigenous people who were already there. Controversy aside, setting sail across the Atlantic in the 15th century took some major palle and set up some pretty fair exploration from Italians. Fueled by their quest for knowledge, if not matching their courage, I set out on my own exploration Saturday night. It was a quest that would inspire mankind and feed a hunger in me. Call it …

… in search of the best cannoli in Sicily.

It’s a worthy journey. Anyone who has tasted that sweet ricotta cheese filling oozing out of a hard crust like cream from a bonbon knows it’s one of the world’s greatest desserts. Every Sicilian around the world who has put up a shingle on a restaurant, from Palermo to Portland, serves cannoli. You’re never the same after one. Then again, neither is your stomach.

Here in Sicily, where my lovely Marina and I came for a long weekend, cannoli is one of the four major food groups. On the island of Favignana, just four miles off Sicily’s west coast, every bar, cafe, trattoria, restaurant and practically bike shop carries cannoli. I had one after every meal. We had one for between-meal snacks. By the time we hopped the hydrofoil back to Trapani on the mainland, I was about ready to liquify one over a match and inject it in my vein.

On the mainland I mainlined. We met our good trapanese friend, Giuseppe, for dinner at Cantina Siciliana. As the name implies, it’s as traditionally Sicilian as mandolin music at a Palermo wedding. It’s in a back alley away from the bustling port and glitzy main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Dolls that look like witches hang from the ceiling in a nod to the neighborhood’s past life as a theater district. The prices are also Sicilian. I had scrumptious busiate, the traditional Sicilian twisty pasta that looks like a thin, yellowish barber pole. Served with tuna roe, tomatoes and almonds from Sicily’s Baroque Triangle town of Noto, it was only 12 euro. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Sicily, my favorite food region in Italy.

From left: Giuseppe, me, Marina and Patrizia at Cantina Siciliana.

From left: Giuseppe, me, Marina and Patrizia at Cantina Siciliana.

Giuseppe is a graphic designer, like Marina, and he brought his colleague, Patrizia, who is also a graphic designer. They had plenty to talk about. But then, as in every conversation in Italy, the subject soon came to food. We were finishing our last glass of Grillo, a terrific white wine from Barone on Sicily’s east coast, and Giuseppe and I started talking about one of Sicily’s favorite subjects.


“You want to try the best cannoli in Sicily?” he asked me. He may as well have asked a junkie, “Do you want the best high of your life?”

It was 11 p.m. And we were goin’ on a road trip. We walked out onto the quiet, dark alley and squeezed into Patrizia’s Fiat 500.

“It’s in the countryside not far from here,” Giuseppe said. “But no one from downtown goes there. Not people like me. Only people from the town.”

The village of Crocci lies about six miles east of Trapani on SP52, a highway that goes through farmland and olive groves.

“Is this mafia country?” I asked, playing the role of a dumb American tourist.

“Not far from it,” Giuseppe said. In fact, Crocci is only 60 miles from the famed town of Corleone.

Oktoberfest in Crocci

Oktoberfest in Crocci

Crocci has a population of 461. It seems all 461 people are in Avenue Cafe di Pollina Pietro, a drab name for what could be the best cannoli in Italy and, thus, the world. They weren’t there for the cannoli. However, looking at the size of the locals, they’ve already had their fill. They had packed the bar for Crocci’s Oktoberfest. Italians, particularly in the south, aren’t big beer drinkers. That’s why I saw a direct correlation between the huge liter-size beer mugs being served and the noise erupting from the adjacent room.

Giuseppe walked me to the cafe counter where inside a glass case I saw cannoli so large they looked straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. These were at least 10 inches long, twice the size of cannoli I’ve seen anywhere else in Italy. They were 2 euros each.

He ordered two for the four of us. He could’ve ordered two for the entire cafe.

An advisory to all Americans: The term “cannoli” is plural. One is called a “cannolo.” It’s similar to panini. One is a “panino,” which always baffled the clerks at Panera whenever I ordered one in the U.S. “Cannolo” actually comes from the Sicilian word “cannolu” which means “little tube.”

A cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro next to a normal-sized cannoli.

A cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro next to a normal-sized cannoli.

The cannolo tradition in Sicily has somewhat of a controversial, steamy past. It dates back to the 9th century when the Arabs controlled Sicily and cannoli were served at the harem of Caltanissetta in the Sicilian hinterland. Apparently, cannoli improved fertility which explains why so many Sicilians have Arab blood today. While the story probably has more sex appeal than truth, it is true that the Arabs brought sugar cane to Sicily in the ninth century.

The more tame legend is that nuns in the convent near Caltanissetta made cannoli to celebrate Carnival.

What is definitely true is what makes cannoli maybe Italy’s favorite dessert. It is a round tube of fried pastry dough filled with rich, creamy ricotta cheese spiked with sugar. Sometimes it’ll be laced with chocolate chips or lined with chocolate or pistachio. But those are found on the mainland. Here in Sicily, I once asked for a cannolo with chocolate and the man laughed and shook his head. I felt like an Italian in the U.S. asking for a hotdog with Nutella. In Sicily, you find only tradition.

What separates Sicilian cannoli with those found elsewhere is the tube. It’s crisp. It’s crunchy. You almost need a steak knife to cut it. Some cannoli tubes in the U.S. are as soggy as a rain-soaked sock. And most cannoli in Sicily are “preparati al momento” (prepared at the moment), meaning they’re always fresh.

Giuseppe put one of the cannoli in my hand and it doubled the width of it. This cannolo isn’t a dessert. It’s a weapon. Giuseppe gingerly cut the two cannoli in halves and Marina, always watching her diet, looked at the slab in front of her and nearly fled the room. I dug in. The thick confection of ricotta cheese had the consistency of gelato and was nearly as sweet. It was almost too much. I had to break off pieces of the tube to give my mouth some context. But I didn’t waste a drop. It fed my growing addiction. I nearly inhaled it like a milkshake through a giant, fila-dough straw.

As the patrons filled themselves with beer, none of their stomachs could’ve been as jammed as mine as I waddled into the night. It was midnight and a hotel room back in Sicilian civilization awaited. As I laid on the bed and groaned, something made me wonder.

What dessert did Columbus bring on his ships?

Favignana: “No. 13 Clearest Water in the World” tantalizes sun worshippers off Sicily’s west coast

Favignana's Cala Rossa, once the site of a great Roman victory in the 3rd century BC, now sport's some of clearest water in the world. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Favignana’s Cala Rossa, once the site of a great Roman victory in the 3rd century BC, now sport’s some of clearest water in the world. Photo by Marina Pascucci

FAVIGNANA, Italy — I’m a sucker for world lists. The World’s Most Beautiful Mountains. The World’s Most Dangerous Highways. The World’s Best Restaurants. Facebook is filled with them every day. Being a water person, one list from made me stand up and look at my sunscreen supply: The World’s Clearest, Bluest Water.

I’m a scuba diver so water clarity is huge for me. Visibility is as important as water temperature. The water off Cozumel in the early ‘80s was so clear I could see a wall 100 meters from the one I was swimming along. The turquoise water in French Polynesia made it hard to differentiate the South Pacific from the sky.

Who knew that I could add to my list of aqua paradises by traveling only two hours from Rome?

Yes, there it was, No. 13 on The Weather Channel’s 2016 list: Favignana, more specifically, Cala Azzurra beach. I’d never heard of Favignana, either. It’s a small island off the west coast of Sicily sporting a name it took me a month to remember. My girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, is an ace photographer whose whole profession is based on clarity. She’d been to Favignana (pronounced fa-vin-YAH-nah) before and wanted to take me to another special place for my birthday. Last year it was Syracuse, Sicily. This year, we’d go back to Sicily. One more trip and I’ll be paying off politicians.

1. The Cook Islands
2. Cocos Island, Costa Rica
3. Knip Beach, Curacao
4. Five-Flower Lake, China
5. Maldives
6. Koh Lipe, Thailand
7. Jaco Island, East Timor
8. Marsa Matrouh, Egypt
9. Boracay, Philippines
10. Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
11. Los Roques, Venezuela
12. Lefkada, Greece
13. Cala Azzurra, Favignana, Italy
14. Havelock Island, Andaman Islands
15. To Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa

I’m sorry. That’s a crude stereotype of a Sicily that I have long since forgotten. Sicily has the best food in Italy, spectacular beaches, friendly people, fascinating history and, as I’d learn, some of the clearest waters in the world. Also, spring in Sicily is an almost ideal time to go. The warm weather has arrived before the waves of tourists. Prices are lower and there’s no need to wait in line for a cannoli.

Yes, the cannoli is always fresh in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, the cannoli is always fresh in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I not only didn’t know anything about Favignana, I didn’t know how easy it is to reach. It’s a 1-hour, 10-minute RyanAir flight from Rome to Trapani, then a 30-minute ferry ride to Favignana four miles away. That’s it. In Italy it takes longer to buy a stamp.

Giuseppe “Jose” Tammaro, the 72-year-old owner of our Isola Mia hotel, met us at Favignana’s postcard-cute harbor. Sporting long, shocking white hair and shades, he looked like a movie director specializing in exotic locales. Or he could pass as an aging musician which he somewhat is. His folk music band, formed 15 years ago, is called Macuccusonu. A Favignana native who spends the winters in Northern Italian, he drove us the five minutes to Isola Mia, a series of one-story adobe-style bungalows connected with red-tiled roofs surrounding palm and Mediterranean pine trees. It’s like a small ranch in Arizona. Our room had a TV, refrigerator and space out back where we could eat our breakfast and stare out at the island countryside. Iose apologized for all the dirt in the courtyard. They were planting grass for the summer season. We barely noticed. It was as peaceful and quiet as anywhere we’ve been in Italy.

Isola Mia

Isola Mia

Favignana, the largest of the three Egadi islands, is only 14 square miles and shaped like a butterfly. The port and village form the head, with narrow roads snaking into the eastern peninsula and the more rural tracks in the larger western side featuring forests and grottoes .

A former Phoenician outpost during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century B.C., Favignana was where the Roman navy destroyed 120 Carthaginian ships in 241 BC. So many Phoenicians washed ashore that they called the beach forevermore, “Cala Rossa” (Red Cove). In truth, it was named for the beach’s red clay but the Roman military preferred its explanation for PR purposes.

Tuna fishing was Favignana's top industry for centuries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Tuna fishing was Favignana’s top industry for centuries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Since then, Favignana has been ruled by the Arabs, Normans, Aragonese and Spanish who discovered the waters had enough tuna for tapas from Madrid to Tierra del Fuego. The tuna industry ruled until declining in the 20th century. Taking over in the 1960s was tourism.

Not many come in spring. Water temperature is about 52 degrees, too cold for anything more than your more adventurous fur seals. Forget Italians. They don’t drink water 52 degrees. The time to come is the fall. The tourists have left but the warm waters, heated by Sicily’s steaming summer, are still around.

So Marina and I wandered the five minutes from Isola Mia through the narrow alleys lined with alabaster white apartments, tiny vegetable markets and cozy local trattorias. Near the harbor is a crude beach with some rusted boats behind a Cyclone fence. An old man played with his two dogs as we gazed at an apartment house with two balconies overlooking the sea. Near the harbor, the sea had the color of cobalt. We were told to get on a bike and explore to see the turquoise of tourist posters.

Piazza Madrice

Piazza Madrice

All the paths seem to lead to Piazza Madrice, a long courtyard anchored by the 18th-century Chiesa Madre Maria SS Immacolata on one end. On the corner is the nerve center of Favignana. Caffe Aegus serves some great pistachio gelato in town and a nice Nero d’Avalo, Sicily’s signature ruby-red wine. But you come here for the local rundown. It’s the perfect cross-section view of the island. As we settled into our seats, an old woman dressed in all black shuffled past us. Middle-aged men in street clothes played soccer on the cobblestones with surprising flair. Bells pealed from the church.

Next to our table sat an old man in a classic Sicilian fishing cap, the kind with the top squished down and pinned to the bill and what Marina once gave me. He hailed from Frosinone, a downtrodden town 55 miles south of Rome. He’s been in Favignana 42 years and lauded its famed scuba diving and snorkeling. I asked him about the stories of overfishing and he scoffed.

Locals in the piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals in the piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“No, there are more fish,” he said then gave me the single fist bump, the international hand signal of, ahem, procreation.

Like everywhere else in Sicily, fish is all over the menus here. Iose recommended Trattoria da Papu’. The fish theme overwhelmed us as we walked in to walls draped in fishnets, anchors, starfish, black and white photos of old fishermen and a gorgeous sunset photo from the 1980s.

Busiate al Profumo di Mare

Busiate al Profumo di Mare

Multiple trips to Sicily have changed my perspective on Italian food. Sicily shot right past Emilia-Romagna as the top region. The large variety of seafood is so fresh and the desserts — the cannoli, the granitas — are perfect for the hot Sicilian climate. And every trip I discover something new. At Papu’ I discovered busiate, a thick, twisty pasta that’s specialty to western Sicily. It’s perfect with my dish, Busiate al Profumo di Mare, busiate covered in shrimp, clams and bread crumbs. With a tuna and fried shrimp cocktail, that was all of 23 euros and a half-liter of house Nero d’Avalo was 6. You do the math.
Marina and me at Cala Rossa

Marina and me at Cala Rossa

The only ways to see Favignana are by boat or bike. A car is a waste of money. The island is too small for a car and you get no feel for the fresh Mediterranean breezes. And the quiet. Oh, it is so quiet on Favignana you can hear the birds’ singing almost make sense. We woke the next day and headed back to the harbor where Noleggio Ginevra had some of the nicest bikes I’ve ever rented. They’re modern hybrids with 30-plus gears and men’s and women’s versions. I’m just not comfortable enough in my manhood to ride a bike without a crossbar.
On the road in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the road in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marina and I headed along the harbor before cutting inland and going south. We passed entire fields of golden rods lined with pine and lemon and cactus trees. Stone walls bordered off excavation sites with signs reading: “Attenti al cane” (Beware of dog).

Soon, we saw our tourist poster. To our left, stretching out from the craggy beach, sat a sea so turquoise I could see the bottom from atop the cliff. It was clear as any sea I’ve ever seen, making me kick myself for not bringing a swimsuit before remembering the water temps that would sterilize me for life. We parked our bikes and walked along the rocky cliffside trail. An old man stood next to his small trailer advertising “pane cunzatu,” a traditional Sicilian sandwich featuring tomatoes, anchovies and cheese. We stared down at the 80-foot drop and wondered how crowded this corner of the Mediterranean must get in August. Then we saw a sign.

Cala Rossa. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cala Rossa. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cala Rossa.

This is where the Phoenicians met their deaths in the 3rd century B.C. and where Italians meet their nirvana in the 21st century.

The problem with Favignana is it is so small, the locals figured, Who needs signs? As we cut inland, we got as lost as anyone can on an island with nothing more than a two-lane road. Favignana has a spiderweb of small roads careening around pleasant homes and fields. Unable to find the other beaches on our checklist, we stopped a man wearing gaiters. Maybe a fisherman, maybe a gardener, maybe Favignana is infested with leeches. It didn’t matter. He was flat out crazy as a loon. I asked directions and he said, “Parli italiano?” He then gave us directions Indiana Jones couldn’t follow. Marina didn’t understand him, either and she’s Italian.

After he grabbed my arm in emphasis, I shook away and we backtracked in the general direction of his protruding finger, assuming it was his index. We eventually wound our way down to the far southern coast where we saw Cala Tuono. Seagulls joined us and a picnicking couple on the cliff as we stared down at a long beach — covered in algae. Yes, the image was somewhat stained by the sight of green squishy substance you need flip-flops to navigate in spring. Yet looking out at the turquoise sea, I’d brave the gross texture under my feet knowing the pleasure that would envelop my body in time.

Cala Azzurra

Cala Azzurra

On the way back we passed a hiking group, the lone tourists we encountered on the weekend, and visited Cala Azzurra. Lined with resorts closed until summer, Cala Azzurra has a gorgeous view of 12th century Norman Fort of Santa Caterina towering over the village and beautiful turquoise swimming holes just feet from the shore.

In 15 minutes, we had pedaled back into town and parked at Paninoteca Costanza, a tiny deli with a sign featuring Wimpy, the burger-munching character from the American cartoon “Popeye,” holding a hamburger. It’s the one place on Favignana you can get a hamburger and hotdog, an unfortunately growing craze among Italian youth. We passed for the panino camparia, a fat chunk of freshly grilled tuna in a toasted sesame bun and lathered in mayo. For 6 euros, it was the best bargain in town.

My good friend, Giovanni Bertolani, floating in Favignana in summer.

My good friend, Giovanni Bertolani, floating in Favignana in summer.

I’ve long stopped asking Sicilians tired questions about the mafia and the pizzo (payoffs) and the past. Islands like Favignana are dotted all around Sicily and we plan on visiting many more.

After all, I plan on having many more birthdays.

Retired in Rome Journal: Wild night out in Sicily is a trip into the mysterious island’s dark side

Me (far right) with (from left) unknown, Giorgio, Marco and Davide in the party center of Palermo.

Me (far right) with (from left) unknown, Giorgio, Marco and Davide in the party center of Palermo.

People pack the dusty little piazza in the heart of Palermo's worst ghetto.

People pack the dusty little piazza in the heart of Palermo’s worst ghetto.

A typical street in Palermo's Ballaro neighborhood.

A typical street in Palermo’s Ballaro neighborhood.

Busiati al Vicolo: Sicily's trademark busiati pasta with swordfish, shrimp, tuna and zucchini.

Busiati al Vicolo: Sicily’s trademark busiati pasta with swordfish, shrimp, tuna and zucchini.

FEB. 19

PALERMO, Italy — I’m sitting outside a tiny takeaway shop near Palermo’s train station. This is one of the few places I’ve seen in Sicily that doesn’t have anything appealing in its display cases. There are some tired-looking French fries, some dangerous onions and some suppli (rice balls filled with meat and cheese) that look like they’d go straight to your stomach, whole, and stay there. But it does have bottles of the Milan beer, Forst, for 1 euro.

Why I’m having a beer to fend off the 12-hour remains of a nasty hangover is a question only my pharmacist can answer. I had a wild night in Palermo, once a town where wild nights usually included a trip to the hospital, morgue or both.

This used to be a rough town. As early as the ‘90s, the Mafia roamed the streets in broad daylight, shaking down businesses ranging from major retailers to the butcher in the public market. No one stood in their way. Judges, prosecutors, journalists have died at the hands of the many families that have fought for control of this island since the early 1800s.

As I wrote before, the nasty bombing of Judge Giovanni Falcone and his wife in 1992 didn’t look good on the Mafia’s resume. They’ve gone underground. The city has rebounded and has now dropped well below Naples, Milan and Rome on the crime meter. It’s a pretty safe city which is why I had no problem going into the heart of the ghetto last night.

Palermo’s Ballaro neighborhood once was home to Norman court officials in the 11th century. Now it’s home to Palermo’s growing number of African immigrants who are trying to add some spice and life to the darkest, dustiest streets in the city. It’s just across the major boulevard, Corso Turkory, from my B&B and I quickly went from a bustling street full of retail stores, small groceries and cafes to dark, narrow streets lit by lone lamp posts hanging next to dreary beat-up apartment houses. Youths hung out on street corners speaking a variety of dialects from across the breadth of West Africa. Street signs were nowhere to be found. It took five minutes before I realized I had no earthly idea where they hell I was or what direction I was going.

However, I felt very safe. You can’t legally buy a handgun in Italy and these immigrants didn’t bring any organized crime with them when they arrived. I asked a tall lanky man in a neat Fu Manchu how I get to Via Albegheria, Ballaro’s main drag and he answered in near perfect English. He was from Ghana and as he walked me to the right corner, he said he’d been here three years and spoke fluent Italian. That’s more than I can say for some North Americans here. I asked him how he liked Sicily.

“It takes some time,” he said. “There isn’t much work. Life is hard.”

But they have family. I saw numerous nuclear families standing outside bundled up in the relatively cool 50-degree night. One door led to some flashing neon lightbulbs which seemed like a tiny disco that was just warming up. A group of youths appeared more interested in flirting with their women than me walking past them with my head on a swivel looking for any kind of a street sign.

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