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When the Heart Wants Cannoli

Our contributor's passion for Italian sweets takes her to a church that houses a once-secret pastry shop with legendary cannoli.

10:15 AM EST on January 3, 2024

Sicilian cannoli and other treats

Assorted sweets from I Segreti Del Chiostro in Sicily.

“Al cuore non si comanda” is an Italian saying that loosely translates to “the heart wants what it wants.” Never does this adage ring more true for me than when it comes to my love, my head-over-heels, make my heart race, twinkle in my eye, enamored feeling with all things Italian and sweets. My two passions, Italy and dessert, have led me to travel all over this country we know as the home of the dolce vita and to embellish my curves with all the regional food that my heart does desire, oh so very deeply.

On a recent trip to Sicily, on a quest to taste and enjoy the dolci of my dreams, I discovered Sicily’s best cannolo is made not in a pastry shop but in a museum of sorts: I Segreti Del Chiostro (Secrets of the Cloisters). Located in Palermo, inside the Church of Santa Caterina, I Segreti Del Chiostro is a program that preserves and pays homage to Palermo’s ancient convent pastry.

For the past 700 years, up until the 1980s, La Dolceria (The Sweets Shop) was the place where pastries were made to be sold for sustenance of the monastery. The recipes were secret and known only to the nuns who produced the elaborate sweets. I Segreti Del Chiostro is a delicious living piece of history, and its treats can be purchased in La Dolceria of the monastery, now turned museum, and enjoyed in their majolica-tiled courtyard, a peaceful retreat in a city otherwise bursting with energy.

The courtyard at I Segreti Del Chiostro.
The courtyard at I Segreti Del Chiostro.

The most notable of the pastry offerings at I Segreti Del Chiostro, in my opinion, is the cannolo. Upon entering La Dolceria, cannoli shells are on display along with the traditional topping choices of pistachio, chocolate chips, caramelized citrus and candied cherries. All the shells are slightly uneven and imperfect which signals they’re handmade in keeping with tradition, in the on-premise laboratorio, the Italian name for pastry kitchen. Sweetened sheep’s milk ricotta filling is piped into the fried dough tubes à la minute and finished with whatever topping combination one’s heart desires.

I enjoyed mine sitting in the courtyard by the baroque fountain; one bite of this heavenly morsel, crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, instantly transported me to a place of pure bliss, the breeze softly blowing my hair, birds chirping in the background and the aroma of citrus from the courtyard trees permeating the air.

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