Most people’s frame of reference for cannoli—if they’ve heard of it at all—is a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather.”
In the iconic scene, just after a mob hit is carried out, Peter Clemenza tells his associate, Rocco Lampone, to “leave the gun, take the cannoli,” as he’d promised his wife he’d pick up some of her favorite Italian pastry.
While cannoli—a dessert consisting of a fried dough shell surrounding a creamy, ricotta cheese-based filling—is commonly found in East Coast bakeries, it’s more difficult to locate out west. In fact, finding it in Bellingham has at times been the equivalent of a fool’s errand. But thanks to Joe Basile—the man behind local business Take the Cannoli—that’s no longer the case.
Basile (it’s pronounced like the herb) has been providing cannoli for Mr. Frank’s “The Bus”—a permanent food truck at Stemma Brewing Co.—since September. Before this latest arrangement, he distributed his 100-percent-made-from-scratch treats via custom catering orders.
Originally from Los Angeles, Basile grew up in an Italian family with a fondness for cooking. His deep and unabiding love for cannoli began when he first tried one, at age 7.
“That was a great day,” he says with a laugh.
Basile’s mother worked for the U.S. Navy, prompting his family to move frequently. They re-located from California to Oregon, and then, when Joe was 13, to Whidbey Island.
“Everywhere we moved to, that was always the first thing I tried to find,” Basile says of cannoli. “I was never really a big sweets person, but that was something that always resonated with me.”
Learning and Yearning
As he grew up, Basile began working in the food service industry, where he did it all: dishwasher, prep cook, line cook, and other odd kitchen jobs nobody else could—or would—cover during a shift. He worked in catering, fine dining establishments and a hole-in-the-wall barbeque joint.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could,” he says. “That was kind of my culinary education. I never went to culinary school or anything like that. I just kind of worked my way up.”
About five years ago, Basile and his partner (now his fiancée) re-located to Bellingham. More food service jobs ensued, and eventually, Basile got a food service gig at Western Washington University. Still, he often found himself complaining about being unable to find cannoli. His fiancée, tired of hearing it, finally offered a suggestion: Why don’t you make some yourself?
So, Basile concocted a batch in his kitchen. It turned out poorly, but undeterred, he pressed on. His cannoli got better, and friends began to notice.
“I became obsessed with the idea of trying to make them better and better,” he says.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Basile realized his cannoli was good enough to go pro. He began selling them out of his house and to co-workers on-campus, which got him in minor trouble. Eventually, with money saved up, he quit his job, rented some commercial kitchen space with all the necessary equipment, and began “Take the Cannoli.”
Doing custom orders through a website, Basile hand-made and delivered all his own cannoli. There were, of course, challenges. Once, he slid on an icy hill with a $200 order and wound up wearing it. Another time, he was chased by dogs.
Basile sought out other businesses for distribution. Many liked his cannoli, but most were either unwilling to do wholesale orders or unable to agree on price points. Eventually, “Take the Cannoli” entered a sales slump. Basile wasn’t sure if he could keep going.
Then, one day several months ago, Lisa Postl Campbell, who also rents kitchen space at the same facility, saw Basile making cannoli. Her new food truck needed dessert options and, being from the East Coast, she was happy to see the familiar treat.
“She was really, passionately excited about it,” Basile says. “We did a little bit of a trial run. I gave them a little bit to see how it would work out; they were gone in like 10 minutes.”
From there, they built up orders, and demand has been steady. Basile says he stopped doing custom website orders, and now focuses solely on providing Mr. Frank’s with about 40 cannoli, three days a week, from Thursday to Saturday.
The pastries, delivered around noon each day by either Basile or a delivery driver, are typically split between traditional cannoli and one of several custom varieties—most with Godfather-themed nicknames. So far, these have included raspberry, snickerdoodle, cherry champagne, pistachio, peanut butter, pumpkin, and even chocolate orange.
“I love the challenge of it,” he says, of creating new recipes. “I don’t want it to just be something you can see in any bakery store case; I try to make it special in some way.”
Basile puts a lot of thought into crafting his cannoli, and observes a weekly routine. On Sundays and Mondays, he brainstorms and gathers ingredients. On Tuesdays, he strains ricotta overnight and makes any ganache needed for shells.
On Wednesdays, Basile and two helpers roll, flatten, press, shape and, finally, fry the cannoli shells. Basile estimates a week’s worth of Mr. Frank’s cannoli entails a four-to-six-hour day of shell-making. On Thursdays, Basile makes the base cream for each flavor, dips shells in ganache as needed, and then finally delivers them.
The cannoli sells out most days, in varying amounts of time. Once, they sold out before his delivery driver could get back to the kitchen—a span of about 12 minutes. Basile typically updates fans through his Facebook page when supplies run out. He’s even gotten requests to ship his cannoli out-of-state.
So, why is Joe’s cannoli so popular?
Basile believes it’s not just because it’s well-made, but because it resonates with certain people on a deeper level. He gets stories, he says, from Sicilian grandmothers and former East Coast residents, who bite not just into his dessert, but into the memories and experience of their own lives and families.
It makes Basile happy that his obsessive efforts to craft the ideal cannoli—from the perfectly crispy shell to the smooth, not-too-sweet filling—is so genuinely appreciated.
“It gives me a lot of hope,” he says. “I’ve tried several other business ideas that didn’t work out. I thought I was destined to manual labor.”
Joe Basile isn’t sure what the future holds for “Take the Cannoli,” but he’s cautiously optimistic. Passion is what got him here, and for anyone with a dream, he says that’s ultimately what matters most.
“Find something you really, really love to do, and if you had to live in a dumpster to make it happen, then do that,” he says. “If you want to open a business here, find one thing that you’re really good at, and make that the best thing possible.”