This past weekend I drove about 2 hours down to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to see a good friend from college get married in the backyard of his parents' beautiful historic farmhouse. The food in general was better than average, but was topped off by an incredible dessert spread of Italian pastries and cakes all baked by the groom's sister, an Italian-trained pastry chef.
During the cocktail hour, I was given insider information from the groom's other sister not to miss the mini-cannoli (also called cannulicchi), which were the real deal--made with sheep's milk ricotta rather than mascarpone or, heaven forbid, custard. Adding to their value was their relative scarcity: there were only 30 of them for a wedding party of more than 100.
As the crunch of the fried pastry dough shell gave way to the soft cheese of the interior, I came to realize why sheep's milk ricotta is the really the only proper filling for this classic dessert. Ricotta is traditionally made from the whey that's left over in the production of pecorino cheeses, sheep's milk cheeses prevalent throughout the south of Italy and in Sardinia and Sicily. Real sheep's milk ricotta exhibits an intriguing balance of tang and sweetness not found in cow's milk ricotta or other ersatz alternatives. It also has a fantastic mouth feel, owing to the higher fat content of sheep's milk compared to other animals.
Sheep's milk ricotta is also the traditional filling for cannoli in Sicily. In America, on the other hand, sheep's milk ricotta has not always been readily available, so most American cannoli use mascarpone or custard instead. But you can't beat the original, which, combined with some cinnamon, orange flower water, and confectioner's sugar, yields a dessert filling that is perfect in its simplicity. In fact, I could be very happy eating just that as a dessert; who needs the pastry dough?
So my advice is to steer clear of any cannolo made with anything other than sheep's milk ricotta; okay, it may not be all that bad otherwise (what could be bad about fried dough and sweet cheese?) but it won't come near the taste of the real thing.