Written by Deena Douara 

The cannoli is like the princess of desserts: uncommon, fragile and demanding.

Vanessa Chiara explains that good shells are hard to make; creams should be both delicate and bold; and together, they are best had fresh – cannolis displayed too long or refrigerated get soggy.

“They’re meant to be filled fresh on the spot and eaten as soon as possible,” she says.

But Holy Cannoli, when it’s right – it’s an absolute, uncommon pleasure which combines a crispy outer pastry with a slightly sweeter cream inside.

Chiara, founder of Holy Cannoli Shells & Cream, imports carefully selected shells from Sicily and then fills them with her own creamy mix adapted from her father’s simple ricotta-based recipe.

Her father, Nicola Chiaravalloti, had worked as a pastry chef in Rome before moving to Toronto and opening a bakery in a once very Italian Scarborough neighbourhood – a dream he had worked hard for. It was the sort of business that involved all hands, all weeks of the year. Chiara herself started helping when she was just a kid. “I literally grew up there. We ate our dinners there.”

She has since added her own twists to the recipe. As a child, her father mixed candied fruit into the filling – an addition she says made her dislike cannolis at first. Instead, Holy Cannoli offers a variety of flavoured creams, including vanilla, chocolate, lemon and coconut. Chiara also offers variations on the theme, including a fill-your-own kit, cannoli tiramisu and even a gluten-free option.

“Finding creative and innovative ways to serve cannoli is a bit of a passion of mine,” she says, alluding to some upcoming innovations.

In her previous work in the film industry, Chiara would bring her father’s cannolis to work until “it became a thing” – a very popular thing that eventually made her realize she could be the one to bring cannolis to Toronto’s eager-for-cool-food market – the sort that lines up for days for the right ice cream or cheesecake treat.

Toronto was the right market in other ways as well. “All the markets, the festivals, the food shows – there’s so many of them here. There’s so much support.” She explains that the exposure to curious visitors, the media attention and the social media efforts of those events all benefit small businesses like hers.

Chiara credits the Ontario Self-Employment Benefit Program (OSEB), which was run out of the Toronto Business Development Centre, for helping her create a business plan that was both structured and flexible. While she’d had experience with finances and budgeting in her past work, she says the courses helped her evaluate when a big expense (like a trade show) was worth it, even if it did not result in immediate sales. She even picked up a few important retailers during that period.

She’s also been involved with the Canadian Women in Food, Startup Toronto seminars, a food enterprise Facebook group and Enterprise Toronto’s Small Business Forum.

“It’s extremely inspiring and important to take part in those things,” she says, noting the importance of connecting with businesspeople across different sectors. “Entrepreneur meetups are a fantastic way to meet new people who are also out of your realm.”

Meet Chiara or her cannolis at any of over 15 GTA retailers or at a food show, market or private event. Candied fruit filling will not, however, be included.