Seattleites don't know anything about cannoli. Unless you're an East Coast expat or grew up with an Italian grandmother, you probably aren't even clear on what it is.
As of last week, nearly the entire editorial staff of The Stranger was a pit of cannoli ignorance. Cannoli, the dessert, was confused with both cannelloni, which is pasta, and cannellini, which is a bean. Even after a 10-minute discussion, someone asked, "What exactly is cannoli, again?"
To make matters even more confusing, Holy Cannoli—Adrienne Bandlow's Belltown shop—claims to serve "Detroit's finest" cannoli. What?!
"I don't know what a Detroit cannoli is," admits Bandlow from behind the counter. "I call it a Detroit cannoli because I want people to experience the community that I grew up in. It isn't any different than other cannoli. The cannoli that I learned how to make is filled with cream. In Sicily, you usually get a ricotta cheese cannoli. There's no wrong or right way to do it—it's a very personal thing you learn from your family or community."
Though Bandlow grew up in Detroit, she lived in Seattle as a teenager. Her route to Holy Cannoli was a circuitous one.
"I have an undergraduate degree in social justice and women's studies, I have a graduate degree in public policy, I went to law school but I didn't graduate from law school, and then I have a postgraduate education in decision and risk analysis from Stanford," she says, rolling off her curriculum vitae like it's no big deal. "I did research in South and Central America, and I lived in Italy for a while. I've traveled all over the world.
"I thought I was doing what I wanted to do," she continues while cleaning up the counter after an early-afternoon rush. "I wanted to be a public policy worker, I wanted to be a lobbyist—I had all these dreams. I did economic and community development work. I worked at a nonprofit... I cannot say that anything I've ever done hasn't been interesting and very rewarding. It's just the universe had some other plan."
Bandlow entertained the idea of abandoning her career path to make cannoli for several years. In December, without any business or culinary background, she opened in a very small space at the corner of Third and Clay. Three failed coffee shops had preceded her. She's the first person to admit that the decision was quick and that her learning curve has been very steep.
Bandlow doesn't make the cannoli shells herself—that requires a lot of room, time, and staff that she just doesn't have yet. (In short: You roll out a large sheet of dough until it's paper thin, fold it up into layers, cut out hundreds of circles, wrap the circles around copper tubes, hang the tubes from a large rack, then deep-fry them for less than a minute until they're golden brown.) Holy Cannoli's shells are flown in weekly from an Italian bakery on the East Coat (she is evasive about which one). The filling, though, is made from scratch daily. Each batch—cream, eggs, and flavoring—is whipped by hand for 20 minutes to achieve a custardy consistency. A batch fills about 100 cannoli. She goes through anywhere from 2,400 to 3,000 cannoli a month. You do the math.
The hard work is worth it. The Stranger's sole East Coast native (and noted fussbudget), Goldy, appreciated the authenticity of Holy Cannoli's product. His only complaint, echoed by a few others, was that the shells could've been a little crisper. That's the drawback of not making them in-house, but it's forgivable.
At Holy Cannoli, the traditional vanilla-cream cannoli (the Detroiter) is a mainstay, as is the Seattleite—filled with, of course, espresso cream (they're all $2.50 apiece and $25 a dozen). Bandlow made chocolate- covered strawberry for Valentine's Day, and she recently added limoncello (my personal favorite, not too sweet and bursting with bright citrus flavor) and chocolate peanut butter to her list. She's also constantly experimenting.
"Last night, I ground up hazelnuts and I cooked some of them into the cream, then I tossed in a chocolate truffle and added hazelnut extract," she says. "It tastes like Nutella. You could say it's a nontraditional cannoli, but who cares?"
Also on Holy Cannoli's menu: stromboli ($2.50), small logs of chewy dough filled with savory goodness (like spinach, olives, and Gorgonzola, or ham, salami, and provolone), with warm marinara sauce for dipping; the 7-Mile Special ($5.50), a sub-style sandwich stacked with ham, salami, provolone, and pepperoncini; and the Hotza Mozza ($3, ordered by nearly every lunchtime visitor through the door), a slider-sized bun stacked with mozzarella and tomato slices.
Bandlow admits Holy Cannoli is still a work in progress—in a perfect world, she'd make her own shells and serve espresso (right now she has iced teas and Italian sodas). She plans to start opening early in the mornings and add breakfast stromboli to the menu.
She's already seeing a stream of regular customers who keep coming back for cannoli. And no one leaves the shop with just one—most people get at least two or three, as they're a little smaller than the traditional cannoli you've seen. Assuming you even know what one is.