Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Mafia Kitchen: Cannoli so good it should be illegal

March 1, 2023
By Mark Whittaker
By Mark Whittaker

Off the Eatin' Path

The story between Mafia Kitchen and me is pretty amusing and quite storied. 

It all started around October of last year. Having heard of a cart that serves up some of the most primo cannoli in town, I knew that I had to hang out with them and get the word out. But that’s when the trouble started. Either they were parked somewhere I couldn’t get to, they were out of town, or they had other commitments beyond the food cart. 

Oreo Cannoli at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

This went on into the holidays, past the new year, and just recently we finally got the chance to meet. To sum up, it has been quite a journey. 

When Mafia Kitchen owner Andrea Rifenberick texted me saying they were set up in front of a motorcycle and off-road vehicle shop on Ina Road and I-10, I spat out my green tea, closed my book, put on pants, and drove. 

It was like a reunion of sorts but for people that have never met. Through time, endless emails, and texts, we were finally face to face and ready for a big hug. 

Andrea Rifenberick of Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Now, before we get into the yummy logistics of Mafia Kitchen, let’s just say that if we were to list all of the kitchens and concepts Rifenberick has worked in, led, managed, owned, operated, cooked, and booked, this article would have to be a series. It’s quite the culinary history so when you meet her just know that she has done and seen it all — food-wise, at least. 

Mafia Kitchen is her sweet, tasty baby, though. 

It’s an effort that she has been working on and dreaming about since the time she set foot in someone else’s restaurant. Her being Italian, Rifenberick was used to cannoli being served only around Christmas. Seems a shame that something that scrumptious should only come but once a year. 

Cannoli at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Maybe that’s what makes it special. Nah! Let’s get down with the cannoli on a regular basis. 

Rifenberick’s grandparents, on a pre-arranged marriage, moved to Tucson from Sicily and had (get this) 12 children. So, she was brought up in a pretty old-school, very traditional Italian household that would eventually spark her culinary career’s fire. After decades of doing deeds and making money for countless others, she was burned out. This led to her deciding to light out on her own. 

The name Mafia Kitchen may strike some initial concern, but what she is trying to convey is that this is a family business and she is indeed the boss.

After purchasing the cart, which was once used to make tacos, Rifenberick got to work on mastering the art of the cannoli. Sure, she’s been making them her for most of her life, using family recipes and flavors, but she’s also coming up with whimsical combinations of her own. 

(Photo courtesy of Mafia Kitchen)

“A cannoli is meant to have a crispy flaky shell, filled right before you’re about to consume it,” said Rifenberick. “The ricotta should shine through over any sweetness added, it should be creamy and not gluey, overly sweet, or gritty. It took some time but I have mastered the perfect combination of all of those key components.”

We of the Tucson eating fold are quite fortunate to have a few really good local cannoli options, most coming from traditional Italian constructs. Thing is, not all will proffer one made with peanut butter cups. That was literally the first thing Andrea had me try as we were chatting. 

Peanut Butter Cup cannoli at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It was easily one of the tastiest tube-shaped desserts I have ever eaten. The ricotta mixed with the savory peanut butter chocolate element was a dream of sheer deviant genius. Heck, even the traditional Sicilian cannoli was a tantalizing treat as well. That ricotta cheese just made it. It has to be a secret family recipe.  

Turns out that Rifenberick is too busy to make her own ricotta but prides herself, and does us proud, on securing ricotta cheese from a secret source who in fact does keep it in the family. 

Along with a lot of new-ish food trucks, Mafia Kitchen came to fruition right around the time the pandemic hit. Just a few months before 2020, Rifenberick began piping in her decadent delights for the good of all mankind but then had to shut down for obvious reasons. 

Cannoli at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It’s a food truck tale as old as time. You can’t keep a good boss down, though. Just three months post-shutdown, Rifenberick was back up and running on the graces of the county. However, one important element was amiss. That ricotta. 

It was totally unavailable, much like paper products and dried ramen — couldn’t find it anywhere. So, she waited. If her cannoli is going to be the best, they have to be made with the best. Then the light of Don Corleone beamed down on her and that ricotta was back in action! Meaning Mafia Kitchen could be as well. With all of that behind us, we can relax knowing that Mafia Kitchen has that ricotta with the stamp of approval. Whew!

Now, you may have had a cannoli here and there, but the Mafia Kitchen variety is in a whole new mob. Rifenberick likes to describe her cannoli as bougie. The Bougie Cannoli Mob: Once you’ve been jumped in you won’t ever want out of this gang. 

An instant crowd-pleaser, both in flavor and aesthetics, has to be the Chocolate Cherry Cordial. Going into this one, I was expecting an almost cloying sweetness. Nope. It was more akin to enveloping a naughtier version of a sundae, slow dancing with that relative that let you sip their cocktail at a family reunion when you were young. 

Chocolate Cherry Cordial at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Same with the Limoncello Cannoli. It’s not boozy at all but it’ll get you drunk with deliciousness. 

As mentioned earlier, Rifenberick has mastered the art of the flaky pastry cannoli shell. That aspect is more than half of the entire eating experience. Not soggy, not too crunchy, but buttery, crispy, and the perfect conduit for delicate yet spirited expressions of what a cannoli should and could actually be.

The sugarplum surprises don’t stop there. 

Mafia Kitchen has Italian Dessert Sodas with flavors such as Cupcake, Toasted S’Mores, Huckleberry Tart, Pineapple Upside Down, and Cotton Candy. Oh yeah, you’re on a ride like the wild boat tunnel scene in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (without all of that nightmare stuff, of course). 

Pickle Punch at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

All of those flavors are fantastic but you have to get the Pickle Punch.

Rifenberick has concocted a pickle lemonade that is both tongue-shocking and tastebud-satisfying. The sugar cools the sour, making for a unique flavor fusion. Rimmed with Tajín and a pickle dip, this one may sound criminal at first but then halfway through you admit to these passionate crimes and go into full reprieve. 

Pickle Punch at Mafia Kitchen (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It was difficult to leave Rifenberick that day. It had been such a strange struggle to get together but afterward, we both knew we would see each other again soon. With a little luck, I’ll see you there, too. 

No matter where she or Mafia Kitchen is parked, I’m making the trek. This is mainly because I forgot to sample her tiramisu, which Rifenberick said is the tops here in Tucson — possibly anywhere. 

For more information, follow Mafia Kitchen on Facebook and Instagram

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Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...

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