(Bloomberg) -- Cannoli hold a proud and longstanding place in the Italian dessert lexicon, alongside such staples as biscotti, tiramisu, and the flaky, shell-shaped sfogliatella.
Now the hard-shelled, sweet cream-stuffed Sicilian pastries are moving beyond the Italian café display case. From the UK to Canada to the Philippines, entrepreneurs are pushing cannoli into the spotlight as the international dessert du jour. Believed to have been invented in the first century by Arabs in Sicily to celebrate fertility at carnival—canna indicates a reedlike or tubular shape in Italian—fillings now range from the classic ricotta cheese sweetened with confectioners’ sugar to unconventional flavors, such as carrot cake, that would be unrecognizable to traditional pasticcerie.
Take London’s Casa Cannoli, which started in 2017 as a dessert delivery business. Owner Dario Dandi sold up to 25,000 cannoli last fall and has seen demand for his specialty soar in the past year, with an average 10% month-over-month increase in units sold from January to April. Demand has increased so much that the native Italian plans to open his first independent store by the end of the year, in addition to the stands he maintains at a handful of markets around London, like Victoria Park Market.
“Business is good. People are finally becoming quite familiar with cannoli, and I think we played a big role in that,” Dandi says.
For Kristine Tanyag in Manila, the cannoli epiphany started with the pandemic. Since she couldn’t visit Italy, the 36-year-old pastry chef started making the pastry she strongly associated with it.
Tanyag began delivering cannoli from her home in the spring of 2020, promoting them on social media. Within weeks, the classic treats from her new business, KT’s Kitchen, stirred much local demand. Soon, Tanyag was selling up to 100 cannoli a day—and as many as 250 on local holidays—for $2, each packed in a pink box adorned with her initials as a logo.
A few years ago, the dessert was virtually unknown in the Philippines, where tastes tend more toward cakes and sweet breads than a ricotta cheese confection. Cannoli caught on because of their novelty—and because locals will give almost any pastry a shot, says Tanyag, who also sells beignets.
“Filipinos love sweets. Cannoli are so delicious and unexpected, they became a hit,” she says. The chef estimates she earns from $2,900 to $3,900 monthly.
The success of KT’s Kitchen has inspired other businesses in Manila. Soon after Tanyag began delivering her cannoli, local Italian restaurants started to offer them, and online shops specializing in the treat began popping up. Nothing But Jill, a bakery whose offerings include cannoli “bouquets,” opened in Manila in July 2020. Cucina Artigianale, which specializes in highly decorated cannoli that include a pink-iced strawberry version, started offering cannoli around the same time. Such restaurants as A Mano, Salvatore Cuomo, and Francesco’s also added their own versions.
Cannoli now rival gelato and tiramisu for popularity in the Philippines. A local news site named the top 10 places to eat cannoli in the capital last summer.
Worldwide, the dessert’s popularity has also grown as stuck-at-home entrepreneurs looked to turn baking skills into fruitful business operations.
Golden Cannoli, one of the major producers of the dessert’s components in the US, typically sells about 33 million shells a year. Valerie Bono-Bunker, president and co-owner of the company, says the number of shells sold in 2021 marked a 48% increase from the previous year. And in the first two months of 2022, Golden Cannoli saw sales increase 51% from the same period last year.
On Goldbelly, the popular food delivery platform, this year’s cannoli sales have risen 30% so far compared to last year, according to founder Joe Ariel. They’re the bestselling Italian pastry on the site.
“People right now are looking everywhere for sources of comfort, and the cannoli is a bite-sized vehicle to provide that,” he says.
As additional cannoli-oriented places open, demand responds. At Vanessa Chiara’s Holy Cannoli in Toronto, sales have grown over the past four years as other specialty stores launched. “There are at least five companies selling cannoli in the Toronto area right now,” says Chiara, who calls them “the new cupcake.”
Her shop sells a couple of hundred cannoli daily to customers and local restaurants. On weekends, she regularly ships out a few thousand. She points to her own marketing efforts in helping raise the dessert’s profile in Canada.
“Other people have seen how well we have done with serving just one kind of dessert,” she says about her focus on one specialty item via social media and branding. “They’ve seen how hardcore our cannoli fans have been.”
In Europe, Italian expatriates have perceived a gap in the cannoli market—and a business opportunity.
Adriana Illiano, an Italian chef who started Cannoli Co. in Munich six months ago with her partner Andre Schmidt, already sees the business taking off. She sells from 50 to 100 cannoli a day. “People love it. We want to expand nationwide this year,” she says of plans to open in Stuttgart and Hamburg.
“Some people have heard of cannoli because of The Godfather or The Sopranos,” says 44-year-old Dublin-based Italian Federico Riezzo, founder and owner of Ciao Cannoli, a pop-up food truck he launched last June. “But a lot of people don’t know what it is.” Riezzo focused on social media promotion with an eye-catching Instagram account and strong branding.
“The first weekend we launched our cannoli product at a local food market, we sold out,” he says.
Riezzo settled on making the dessert because it was convenient to produce, felt original, and could be promoted as a finger food. “We wanted something not as overused as other desserts—something easy. It’s very fast to make. We pipe the cannolo on the spot.” He adds: “There you go, in your hand, in your mouth. You can have it by the van, no spoon involved.”
Despite its growing popularity, the pastry presents challenges to producers. Because they are delicate and have a short shelf life—the cream filling requires temperature-controlled storage, and the dessert is best savored minutes after it’s stuffed—producers have had a hard time scaling up to export cannoli.
“It’s very hard to ship,” says Dandi, who ships Casa Cannoli’s products around the UK. “The ricotta filling needs to be put in the shell and eaten within an hour or two, or it becomes soggy,” he says. “It also needs to stay cool.”
His solution: to ship the shells and filling separately in a kit that people fill themselves when they’re ready to savor.
The fried pastry has become so popular that places have developed iterations such as cannoli dips with fried pastry chips, which are available even at classic Italian spots like 128-year-old Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe in Manhattan. The dessert has featured on TV shows, including The Great British Bake Off, and it went viral in Boston last year when a man barred from flying with a ricotta pouch started filling his cannoli shells to make it through airport security with his treats.
Steve Del Gardo, the 53-year-old Covington, Ky.-based owner of Del Gardo’s “cannoli bar,” has come up with 155 flavors—and counting. “My Biscoff cookie butter cannoli sells very well, and the black raspberry chip one is very popular, too,” he says.
“When I tell people I make a peanut butter cannoli, some purists raise their eyebrows,” says Dandi of Casa Cannoli. “Then they try it, and it’s all good.”
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