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Eat and Drink

San Gennaro cannoli contest treats come straight from the Cannoli King

Caffe Palermo, celebrating 45 years in Little Italy, will supply the treats for this year’s competitive-eating event.

John Delutro gives some insight into the history behind his Caffè Palermo, how his cannolis stack up against competitors', and how he was dubbed the Cannoli King. (Credit: Jeff Bachner)

Caffè Palermo’s owner will be filling, and refilling, pastry bags with fresh cannoli cream for an hour straight Friday afternoon in anticipation of the 21st annual San Gennaro cannoli-eating competition.

That thought might leave you with a craving for the Italian pastry, or a hand cramp, but, by now, the boost in orders during the Little Italy feast is expected at the 45-year-old shop.

“Me and my worker, we fill all the cannolis ourselves. We make them all fresh,” says the cafe’s owner “Baby John” Delutro, known around Mulberry Street as the Cannoli King. “Then, we’ll have a cannoli march right to the stage.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Delutro and his employees were putting the finishing touches on Caffè Palermo’s feast stand at 148 Mulberry St. (complete with a giant cannoli statue and a refrigerated pastry case) and were already filling cannoli orders from dozens of customers.

As the original host of the Feast of San Gennaro’s cannoli-eating contest, Delutro will be providing all of the sweets for this year’s competition at 2 p.m. on Friday.

“[The contestants] are happy I’m doing it because they love my cannolis. They say some of the other cannolis taste like toothpaste,” the Cannoli King, 64, jokes, adding that there’s no actual rivalry among Little Italy’s bakeries. “If I’m walking down the street and somebody asks me where there’s a good cannoli, I just say they’re all good; Ferrara’s, they’re all my friends.”

Delutro grew up on Mulberry Street and calls himself one of the few remaining born-and-raised tenants. His great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the first president of the Society of San Gennaro, the original organizers of the feast.

“Little Italy has changed drastically. There’s no more Italians. There’s only a handful of us left that live here. It’s all tourists. Without the tourists, we’re dead,” he says. “It’s sad. It really is sad. But it’s still a really great neighborhood.”

He decided to open Caffè Palermo in the neighborhood in 1973 after a rainy afternoon and a little bit of friendly competition: “I was walking down the block in February and the wind blew my umbrella inside out. I looked and heard people screaming. I turned around and saw people waiting online to get in Ferrara’s. I said, could it be that people will wait online for coffee and cake and pastries? The next day I decided to open Palermo. I just hoped I would survive.”

Palermo survived its first five years of business solely by relying on Ferrara’s overflow. “Today, Ferrara’s gets my overflow,” Delutro jokes.

Four decades later, the baker has become known as the Cannoli King (a nickname he had trademarked) for his one-of-a-kind cannoli recipe that hasn’t changed over the years.

“My recipe is a regular cannoli recipe. It’s made with impastata cheese, sugar, chocolate chip, vanilla. I use a good impastata, a high-grade,” he explains. “And I add a little something special, my ingredient, that makes me special.”

Naturally, Delutro kept quiet on what that ingredient is.

For the cannoli contest, he’ll be eyeballing a few hundred regular-sized cannolis (stuffed with original cream with chocolate chips) and serving complementary miniatures to the crowd.

Competitors will be served a plate full of five-inch cannolis (which “weigh a ton”) and be given six minutes to down as many as they can to be crowned Little Italy’s champ.

Last year’s winner, Scott Hersh, of New Jersey, enjoyed 24 whole cannolis. Roughly, that translates to a cannoli every 15 seconds.

“It’s very not appetizing when you look at it,” Delutro says, offering a trick. “They got the cannoli in one hand, coffee in another so it gets a little loose the crust. It slides down. Instead of chewing it, they swallow it.”

Caffè Palermo doesn’t skimp on the filling in those heavy treats, either.

“The secret is you gotta make sure you get the middle. A lot of places you go they don’t fill the middle. They cheat you!” Delutro demonstrates.

He fills a large pastry bag with cream, tucks the excess under his arm and takes his time puffing each fresh-baked shell to the max.

Delutro will be selling cannolis ($4.50) at San Gennaro from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily. The feast kicks off Thursday and runs through Sept. 23.

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