Holy Cannoli's Marco A Livoti On Bringing A Taste Of Sicily To Hong Kong
How did you get your start in the industry?
My family owns and runs a number of Italian pizzerias called Pizza House across Italy, so I grew up in a pizzeria and bakery. My father offered me a job so that I would learn how to take care of our family business. I decided to give it a chance and worked my way up the ranks. I had been on the company’s payroll for only a few months when I applied to [the international school of Italian cuisine] Alma by chef Gualtiero Marchesi in Parma because my curiosity was growing so quickly. I wanted to grow and modernise my family business by taking pizza to the next level.
What were you doing before creating Holy Cannoli?
I’m from a small city in northern Italy called Vicenza and had originally planned to be a physiotherapist, but it wasn’t stimulating enough for me. I moved to Hong Kong in 2019 and became the executive chef of [Japanese bar and restaurant] Sake Central, before launching Holy Cannoli at the end of 2020.
For those who don’t know, what exactly is cannoli?
Cannoli is one of Italy’s many national dishes. It’s a dessert originating from Sicily born from cross-cultural pollination. A mix of Arab, Greek and Roman influences, they traditionally have a crunchy shell filled with ricotta, almonds Marco A Livoti and his business partner, Anna
Zhou, with Livoti’s mongrel, Napoleon Cannoli Jr. Opposite page: Livoti is the brains behind Holy Cannoli, which is putting a creative new twist on the Italian classic and honey. Today, not much has changed. A cannolo in Italy still retains its iconic nine to 20 cm shape and shell, it’s still filled with ricotta, although the toppings can vary from candied fruit to pistachio or chocolate chips.
Where did your love for cannoli come from?
My first memories of cannoli are from visiting my grandmother’s house in Sicily around Easter for her birthday. As Sicilians, we always had cannoli with ricotta and candied fruit for every festival. I actually didn’t like them initially because I thought they were too sweet—the irony is not lost on me now. But my love for cannoli actually stems from trying to show off in front of a girl I liked last year. She knew I was Italian and a chef. She asked to eat authentic cannoli but instead I gave her a caramelised pumpkin seed and ricotta cannoli because I didn’t have time to buy pistachio. She didn’t like it, but it did spark an interesting debate which eventually led to the birth of Holy Cannoli.
How long did it take you to perfect your cannoli recipe?
Not too long. I called a few of my pastry chef friends from various Michelin-starred restaurants. I also called friends and family from Sicily and here we are. It’s not perfect cannoli, but it’s our interpretation.
Did you ever think about diversifying into other sweets?
People often ask me what else I make and my answer to that is our tagline, which is: “We do one thing and we do it f*****g well”. Why would I focus on other products? I’d rather focus on this one thing and make it the best.
You have a highlight on Instagram called “first cannoli”. How do you feel when you see someone trying one for the first time?
The first bite is great: it’s the first taste of its kind in the world because nobody makes cannoli like we do. We’re able to serve people a whole new sensory experience because every cannolo we make is unique. Lavender meringue limoncello curd cannoli or Irish coffee cannoli—who the hell makes cannoli like that? What’s interesting to me is giving individuals in the food industry that I admire a first bite. It’s exciting to collaborate and see how we can develop flavours together.
Was it important to you to revamp a traditional dessert into something more contemporary? Some would argue not to mess with a classic.
I want to mess with the classic without losing too much of my tradition. We try to maintain the spirit of the dessert, but there’s so much more room for innovation. It’s exciting for everyone, which is why chefs are also coming to me with their ideas to create a flavour that they’ve been envisioning, from the shell to the filling. It’s an opportunity to play and be creative.
Where do you get your flavour inspiration from?
For my sweet cannoli, I get my inspiration from brainstorming recipes from the past and adapting memorable desserts that I didn’t expect to enjoy. Everything I make has to be balanced and never too sweet. My savoury cannoli are based on inspiration from my last ten years of Michelin-starred cooking—I can’t wait to roll out flavours like dark chocolate, foie gras and cherry compôte.
What makes perfect cannoli?
If you want to make it right: time and sacrifice.
In your opinion, how and with whom should cannoli be eaten with?
With your loved ones. Although we eat it in Italy any time of day, every day. That means cannoli for breakfast, lunch and dinner or even with coffee. It’s good for any time, not just special occasions.
Do you think the Italian food scene is changing in Hong Kong?
Not enough: there is so much more of Italian cuisine that can be brought to Hong Kong. Everybody loves pasta and pizza, but the real traditions of Italy haven’t arrived in Hong Kong apart from a few niche concepts. But that’s not the best of what Italy has to offer. Oh, and no pineapple on pizza, please.
What are your plans for the future?
We are in talks with a few restaurants, cafés and hotels to supply our cannoli. The goal is to bring cannoli into everyone’s homes. I plan to bring cannoli all over the world, too—we’ve received offers to go to Thailand and Japan. I would love to bring Holy Cannoli back to Sicily. The challenge would be to bring a modernised cannoli back to a land of tradition—and not just any tradition—hard Sicilian tradition, where even chefs like [master Sicilian sweet artisan] Corrado Assenza are celebrated for perfecting their recipes while never daring to push the boundaries. Beyond this, I’ve also jumped back into fine dining with my own private kitchen, which launched in May. The location is hidden and only provided through word of mouth to a lucky few. The food will be a reflection of my experiences over the last ten years across the world.