Words by Olivia Lennox
Images provided by Holy Cannoli, photography by Simon Schilling / Crossed Lines Media
Somewhere between folklore and history lies the rumour that cannoli first came into realisation around 1000AD, evolving into not only a Sicilian staple but a gastronomic symbol of national pride. Fast forward a millennium, and some 9000km away, a duo has cooked up a concept. Born from at home cravings during lockdown, Holy Cannoli came into fruition as a business at the end of 2020.
Ask someone to name the most famous Italian desserts, and in the brief list most likely comprising also of tiramisu and panna cotta, cannoli will surely get a mention. Yet before now, Hong Kong was yet to be introduced to the Italian delicacy, at least on this scale, and so the team behind the concept decided to respond to the pastry-shaped gap in the market. Where strong culinary customs reign supreme in Italy, Hong Kong is open to the experiment and innovation of talents new… Now introduced here is the marriage of tradition and inspiration.
The holy trinity consists of Marco Antonio Li Voti, Anna Zhou and their rescue dog (aptly named Cannoli). Unafraid of breaking boundaries, they thrive off the challenge of educating through flavour and experimentation. As with most great ideas, it embodies simplicity in concept and excellence in realisation.
Their classic range comprises of Nonna’s Originale, Dark Yuzu, Rose & Raspberry, White Chocolate Pistachio, Salted Caramel and Pistachio Bacio. If that wasn’t enough, with a preemptive apology to Nonna, they run through some collaborations, past, present and future – which range from cocktail flavours with Quinary Hong Kong, Shady Acres, and 001, to surprise menus airing on the side of savoury.
Their channel of communication is the simple cannolo. They offer them pre-made, the locations at which are discoverable on their interactive map (the Holy Cannoli pilgrimage). DIY kits are also available, allowing customers to make them at home while getting creative with fillings and toppings. For now a lot of their return customers discover them at their pop-ups, and if their success is measured in something other than numerical value, let it be by anecdote – one customer after tasting a cannolo, ordered forty more on the spot to be served the next day at an outdoor event. Knowing that once you try a bite of Holy’s cannoli it becomes hard to stop, the team always make sure to include more of the filling than is necessary – the initial taste test is of course of utmost importance, and when the filling is as well made as this one there is (almost) no judgement for going straight from nozzle to mouth.
With something so simple, there is much room for error and nowhere to hide. But even as a young chef, Marco has years of experience behind him having worked in esteemed restaurants across Italy, Germany, USA, the UK and Hong Kong. He sites one of the main inspirations in his career as working briefly with Lorenzo Cogo of El Coq, a chef unafraid of pushing boundaries within cuisine. With cannoli it is a fine line to tread but one he has managed to with expertise, striking the perfect balance between traditionalism and experimentation. But the recipe development is thorough and exact, with an average time frame of a month to launch a new flavour. The brilliant irony is that Marco doesn’t have a sweet tooth, and so the cannoli need to be perfect if he is going to be content with the outcome.
The other charming irony is that Anna – with a wealth of global business and hospitality experience – dislikes typical marketing strategy, and that is most likely why she is so good at it. As her own toughest critic, their visuals exude the ethos perfectly. Business – but make it fun. They thoroughly champion collaboration, and Anna emphasises that they believe in community and elevating other businesses as well as their own. They are also determined to involve customers in their growth, running competitions to design the best new flavour and showcasing videos of customers’ “first bite” in pride of place on their Instagram highlights.
This ‘little tube’ is creating a bridge across cultures, as a gratuitous homage to Italy’s culinary heritage and Hong Kong’s open-mindedness. Marco dreams of a return to Italy when travel allows, and a pop-up in Sicily to present their hard work to the toughest judges – the locals. There may be wry concern that the small yet mighty team will be met with a reenactment of The Godfather but having had a taste of what Holy Cannoli has to offer, the Sicilians would no doubt, “take the cannoli”.