The dough crackles, so fine you can see light through it. Then there’s the ooze of creamy ricotta. It might be classic, sweetened cheese with chocolate at the end. Or it might be black sesame in a black cocoa shell, as darkly nutty as the ice cream at Annandale’s Snocream Company on which it’s based.
There are few pleasures quite like biting into cannoli, yet for devotees of the real deal, it’s not always easy to find a version that’s just right. Nicole Liberatore’s own pastry journey began due to the dearth of Italian sweet options in our area. She and her husband, Dominick, met at George Mason University and have lived in NoVA for a decade. Italian pastry was full of important nostalgia for the couple, and making it at home seemed like the only option.
But that was no easy task, either. “Growing up, I was pretty abysmal,” Liberatore remembers of her attempts at cooking. “It wasn’t something I had any particular aptitude for.” But joining a “quintessentially Jersey” family by marriage meant she got a crash course in making staples like red sauce and meatballs. With those recipes under her belt, she attempted to bake, too.
As Liberatore gradually perfected her pastries, she began sharing the results with family and friends. The Liberatores founded Bisnonna Bakeshop, named for Nicole’s late great-grandmother (“bisnonna” in Italian) Phyllis, at the end of 2019. When more and more acquaintances signed up for deliveries, a friend helped her build a website, launching the business two-and-a-half years after she began her cannoli journey.
In 2021, Bisnonna won the DreamStart Competition, a contest Tysons Corner Center hosted to help small businesses open the store they’ve always wanted to. The prize was a pop-up shop open from September through the holidays. The storefront allowed Liberatore to meet her customers face to face. Those included HR 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 food. “The cannoli are absolutely fabulous,” says Lee of the sweets she’s been buying for two years. “Really just inventive flavors that mix well with what a cannoli should be.”
For instance, 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, devotees like Lee brought sales from 200 cannoli a month to 700 every week. “I rolled each one completely by hand—that’s what makes it special and magical and delicious,” says Liberatore. But the experience also made her question how far she could stretch herself and still create the handmade product that is central to the business.
The answer will likely come soon. As of press time, now that the pop-up period is over, Bisnonna is once again a pick-up and delivery business run out of the couple’s home kitchen, shuttling cannoli, pizzelle, and other cookies, cakes, and tarts across the region. Orders start as low as $2.50 for a lemon-ricotta cookie or $6.25 for a single layered sfogliatelle.
However, Liberatore is currently scouting commercial spaces. Whether that location will have a retail component is still up in the air. “We’ll definitely keep growing,” she says. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what shape that will take.”