The dough crackles, so thin you can see the light through it. Then there’s the creamy ricotta ooze. It can be sweet classic cheese with chocolate at the end. Or it could be black sesame in a dark cocoa shell, as dark as ice cream at Annandale’s Snocream Company on which it is based.
There are few pleasures like biting into cannoli, but for the real deal devotees, it’s not always easy to find a version that’s just right. Nicole Liberatore’s own baking journey began due to the dearth of Italian sweet options in our region. She and her husband, Dominick, met at George Mason University and have lived at NoVA for a decade. The Italian pastry was full of important nostalgia for the couple, and making it at home seemed like the only option.
But it was not an easy task either. “Growing up, I was pretty abysmal,” Liberatore recalls of his attempts at cooking. “It wasn’t something I had a particular aptitude for.” But joining a “mostly Jersey” family through marriage meant she got a crash course in making staples like red sauce and meatballs. With these recipes under her belt, she also attempted to cook.
As Liberatore perfected her baked goods, she began sharing the results with family and friends. The Liberatores founded Bisnonna Bakerynamed after Nicole’s late great-grandmother (“bisnonna” in Italian) Phyllis, in late 2019. When more and more acquaintances signed up for the deliveries, a friend helped her create a website, launching the business two-and-a-half years after it began its cannoli journey.
In 2021, Bisnonna won the DreamStart competition, a competition run by Tysons Corner Center to help small businesses open the store they’ve always dreamed of. The prize was a pop-up shop open from September until the holidays. The showcase allowed Liberatore to meet its customers face to face. Among them is human resources professional Gloria Lee, who grew up in a large Sicilian family in Charlestown, near Boston’s North End, an area famous for its stellar Italian cuisine. “The cannoli are absolutely fabulous,” Lee says of the candy she’s been buying for the past two years. “Really inventive flavors that blend well with what a cannoli should be.”
For example, a popular limoncello cannoli is back this spring. A cherry blossom version, filled with cherries and floral notes, debuts this season.
Once the store opened, enthusiasts like Lee boosted sales from 200 cannoli a month to 700 a week. “I rolled each of them entirely by hand. That’s what makes it special, magical and delicious,” says Liberatore. But the experience also left her wondering how far she could stretch herself while creating the artisanal product that is at the heart of the business.
The answer will probably come soon. As of press time, now that the pop-up period is over, Bisnonna is once again a pickup and delivery business run by the couple’s home kitchen, shuttling cannoli, pizzelle and dips. other cookies, cakes and pies across the region. Orders start as low as $2.50 for a Lemon Ricotta Cookie or $6.25 for a single-layer sfogliatelle.
However, Liberatore is currently looking for commercial spaces. Whether this location will have a retail component is still up in the air. “We will definitely continue to grow,” she said. “It’s just a matter of what form it will take.”
This story originally appeared in our April issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.