Traditional cannoli seem to have been all but forgotten in this era of cupcakes and macarons. SFoodie took advantage of a rare sunny weekend earlier this month to rekindle memories of Romolo's in San Mateo, the oldest (and only, for that matter) cannoli and spumoni factory in the Bay Area. The Cappello family has operated this shop since 1968, and 3 years ago grandson Joseph ("Joey") Cappello took over the reins with help from his brother Michael.
This quaint little shop is clean and brightly illuminated, with exceptional service that included patient explanations for newbies. The handmade cannoli shells are made from unbleached flour, raw sugar, honey, cinnamon, cocoa powder, butter, white wine, and a few secret ingredients. The ricotta cream filling is a blend of imported ricotta, sugar, spices, chocolate chips and traditional citron, instead of the candied orange peel that's become common in the U.S. The $3.25 price includes your choice of garnish: cherries, chocolate chips, or pistachios, and for $3.50, you can get a chocolate-coated shell. At first glance, the deep bronze of the fried shells makes them look burnt, but the color results from the ingredients, which are traditional. Lighter-hued shells from competitors simply lack the complex mix of the ones at Romolo's.
What are the characteristics of good cannoli? The shells shouldn't be greasy, they should be filled to order (so the shells remain crunchy), and the cream filling shouldn't be too sweet. Romolo's got it right on every count. We ordered a cannolo garnished with pistachios, a special (vanilla ice cream cannolo garnished with butter brickle, $3.25), and the other specialty of the house, a wedge of spumoni ($3), layers of pistachio, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream accented with candied fruit and chopped nuts. Every item was a real treat.
The menu includes ice cream by the scoop or cone ($2.75-$4.50), prepacked containers, plus a few desserts like tiramisu, sundaes, old-fashioned drinks, and espresso. An assembly-required, take-home cannoli six-pack is available for those who want to play pastry chef at home. There's even extra filling, just in case you make a mistake.
Romolo's Cannoli and Spumoni Factory: 81 37th Ave. (at El Camino), San Mateo, 650-574-0625. Open Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. CalTrain stop: Hillsdale. Walking distance: Three blocks southeast along El Camino Real, one block west on 37th Avenue.