Everyone around him talks and jokes occasionally as they work, but Nick Vaccaro rarely says a word. With single-minded determination, he is folding squares of cannoli dough around forms — by hand, just as his great-grandfather did. By day’s end, he and his employees will have formed about 40,000 cannoli shells, the culmination of a multi-day process.
“I do this because of my family’s heritage, and for my father,” says Vaccaro, who often works 12- or 14-hour days at his company, Vaccaro’s Desserts in Silver Spring. “Plus, I like being able to set my own path. I don’t like being told what to do.”
So far, Nick has been able to roll cannoli while also growing the business that his great-grandfather, John, started more than a century ago. As he experiments with new products, looks for more and larger customers, and even plans to open a retail store, he acknowledges the tension between his roles as entrepreneur and artisan. But it doesn’t look as though he can give up either one anytime soon.
Washingtonians got their first taste of Vaccaro cannoli in 1906, when John Vaccaro opened an Italian bakery and grocery at Fourth and H streets NW. His favorite product: the “little tubes” that originated as Carnevale specialties in Sicily, later becoming popular year-round throughout Italy and then in immigrant communities. The Vaccaros’ cannoli business (no relation to the Baltimore Vaccaro bakery and cafe family) has outlasted many of its storied restaurant customers, including AV Ristorante on New York Avenue NW and Luigi’s on 19th Street NW.
Nick, now 45, joined the business at age 7. “I used to beg my dad to let me go to work with him,” he says.
In 1981, his father, John, expanded the cannoli operation to its current location in an industrial section of Silver Spring. “When we opened here, it was an exciting time for me as a kid,” Nick says. “We were one of the first to be a wholesale cannoli business. We were growing — it worked, we were legit. That’s the way it felt to me.” John Vaccaro died of cancer less than two years later, at age 36, leaving his widow with two teenage sons, a small daughter and a fledgling business. Nick and his older brother helped their mom keep the business open, working through high school and college. Nick stayed on, buying out his mother in 1997.
Asked what it feels like to be working at the only job he has ever known, Nick doesn’t hesitate: “I haven’t completely lost the child’s excitement.”
After all these years, he knows the recipes from memory: “I’ve never seen the cream recipe written down, and I’ve never written it down.” As for the dough, “my father made a chart enumerating the ingredients with a single letter, and some fake ingredients. There were zero instructions,” he says, chuckling.
Today, of course, ingredients must be listed on food packages. The shells contain white pastry flour, whole-wheat flour, sugar, red wine vinegar, water, eggs and vegetable shortening; the filling consists of two types of ricotta cheese plus chocolate chips, vanilla extract and a few other natural ingredients.
The finished product is a crisp shell and a thick ricotta cream, packaged and shipped separately to maintain freshness. Cannoli, as connoisseurs know, are best when they are filled soon before being consumed.
Mike Pastore, the president of Baltimore-based Pastore’s Wholesale Grocers, has bought Vaccaro’s cannoli for decades, even in the face of many offers from other makers. “I won’t switch,” he says. He even sells Nick Vaccaro’s cannoli to a restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy, not far from the “other” Vaccaro’s. Asked what differentiates a great cannoli from a good one, he says that “to me, the cream is the key.” He doesn’t know what ricotta or recipe Nick uses, but “as far as I’m concerned, I’d put his up against anybody’s.”
The Vaccaro process combines technology and a handmade touch. Sheeting machines take the dough from a chunk to a silky-smooth 35-foot-long expanse less than a millimeter thick before cutting it into the pieces that become cannoli shells. Other workers begin the process, but Nick does almost all of the final sheeting himself. He likes to “feel the dough,” to check its progress.
Nick is neither obsessed with technology nor wedded to tradition. He reveres his father and grandfather and the lessons he learned from them, but he also invented a dough-cutting roller that reduces the volume of scraps from 40 percent to 10 percent. He might be able to get that closer to zero, but as he learned from his elders, “a little bit of scrap is good for the new dough.”
His grandfather folded cannoli dough over forms made from wooden broom handles, sanded and cut. His father used hand-cut aluminum tubing. Nick reengineered those forms, adding ridges on the inside that dissipate heat and make it easier to dislodge the shells after they are fried. Although his are custom-made metal, he still uses his grandfather’s term for them: “sticks.”
A few years ago, he tried an Italian automated dough-folding machine but decided its product was not as consistent as hand-folded shells. “Fast and sloppy isn’t fast,” he says. “Quality is first, speed is second.” Still, he hopes to one day find a dough-folding machine that meets his standards.
Whether designing the cooling tunnel for chocolate-dipped shells or the packaging that keeps cream fresh and avoids breakage in shells, “he never turns it off,” says Nick’s wife, Tanya.
Nick’s father began with six restaurants and one wholesale customer. When his mother ran the business, they produced 5,000 to 10,000 cannoli a week. Now Vaccaro’s sells more than 10 times that many: 5 to 7 million cannoli a year to food distributors and restaurants as far away as Michigan and Florida. And yet, Tanya still stops her work on the factory floor when the bell rings. “I’m the door person,” she says, striding quickly to greet every truck driver who pulls up to the loading dock. Smiling and offering a dozen free cannoli, she says, “We like them to taste what they’re picking up.”
There have been setbacks. In 2007, shortly after Nick renovated the space, a fire decimated the factory and brought work to a standstill. A few years later, a dispute with a major customer forced him to lay off workers and drastically scale back production.
But Nick kept going, using mixers “older than I am,” a sheeting machine that his father bought in 1980, and new machines that pack the cannoli at speeds his father could not have dreamed possible.
Nick is adamant that his three children should choose their own paths, even if that means they leave the business, as his brother did. But one day recently, Simon, 11, and Sasha, 9, decided to fold cannoli, working with their parents for six hours. Along with the cannoli shells destined for customers, they made two gigantic ones with their dad — just for fun — by rolling and frying dough over a pyramid of several “sticks.” As Nick describes how they made the enormous shells, he smiles and says, “I used to do the same thing with my father.”
Kumin is a food writer and creator of the blog MotherWouldKnow.com. Vaccaro’s cannoli are sold and served at Marchone’s Italian Specialties in Wheaton; Nick’s of Clinton in Waldorf; Parkway Deli & Restaurant and Santucci’s Italian Deli in Silver Spring; Pasta Plus in Laurel; Potomac Pizza in Chevy Chase Center; the Italian Store in Arlington; the Italian Gourmet Deli (Virginia and District locations); Pines of Rome and Vace in Bethesda.