Last Sunday, the sixth annual Italian Day saw Commercial Drive transformed into a sea of people clustered around food: salt-cured sardines, Nonna’s meatballs, wood-fired pizza — and, of course, cannoli.
“There’s not much to cannoli,” says Sam Pero, owner of Italia Bakery (2828 Hastings St.) and the Cannoli King food truck.
In some ways, he’s right. Cannoli is little more than a hollow tube with a ricotta filling. But that simplicity belies all the details that separate a good cannoli from a soggy, bland disappointment.
At Italia Bakery, the cannoli shells are made from scratch daily. They’re perfectly deep-fried, never greasy. The ricotta cream is rich and sweet, and flecked with miniature chocolate chips. Best of all, they are filled to order, ensuring the optimal contrast between crisp shell and creamy filling.
If anyone should know a good cannoli, Pero should. His dad, Francesco, was born in Sicily, where cannoli originates. The family’s baking roots run from Italy to Montreal and finally to Vancouver, where they’ve run a number of bakeries — including Italia Bakery, founded in 1985.
Then and now, the majority of Italia Bakery’s products are made in-house, from scratch. One notable exception is the sfogliatelle, a shell-shaped, flaky pastry filled with cinnamon-spiced custard. Pero’s father still makes them by hand, but can’t keep up with the bakery’s demands, so the son imports them from Italy.
“Sfoglia means… to unravel. Like you have a loose thread and you pull it and it keeps coming,” says Pero. “There are so many layers you can unravel it.”
All those layers register as noisy flakiness, but in a distinctly Italian way.
Whereas a good French croissant flakes into buttery crumbs, there’s an al dente quality to sfogliatelle — a resistance that lends backbone to all that flake.
If that doesn’t suit you, there’s plenty more to choose from at Italia Bakery. There are beautiful breads, petite babas (rum-soaked cakes that come plain-faced or garnished with cream and fruit) and cookies galore. Chief among them are amaretti, teeny almond cookies that come in all shapes and sizes. The standout is the pinched amaretti, its glassy surface giving way to a squidgy heart of soft almond dough.
But in the end, it’s really about the cannoli. There are fancy flavours that riff on the traditional, plain ricotta version, including pistachio and raspberry — the latter an invention of Pero’s, based on the raspberry and ricotta sandwiches his grandmother used to make him. Because the ricotta cream contains nuts, there are also nut-free, pastry-cream-filled cannoli, in vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut.
(Note: the flavoured cannoli are filled in the morning and displayed in the pastry case. They’re fine if eaten the same day, but not quite the same as the plain, filled-to-order version.)
In 2012, Pero started the Cannoli King food truck and has since exhibited at Italian Day and the PNE. At last year’s PNE, many of his customers tried cannoli for the first time. “I basically told them, save your money. Don’t go to Italy. Buy a cannoli for $5 and you’ll save $3,000 on the ticket,” he says.
You’ll know the Cannoli King truck by the four-foot long cannoli on top, topped with a crown. More than likely, it’ll be Pero in the window, urging you to try one.
“It’s actually quite funny. Wherever I go, people recognize me. I’m at Home Depot and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘You’re the cannoli king,’” says Sam. “That’s pretty weird.”