Tag Archives: cornetti

A long week in Rome: breakfasts

Cornetto, saccotino, maritozzo

If a long weekend involves stretching it to three nights, we’ve just had a long week in Rome, stretching over nine days, and celebrating Fran’s birthday in the middle. It was our first visit to the Eternal City since we left in October 2013, after having lived there since August 2011. So inevitably it was emotional. Although our time in Rome had involved challenges, it culminated in us having a great bunch of friends and an affectionate, nay obsessive relationship with the city and some of its fruits.

Fran and me are both somewhere on the gourmet-gourmand spectrum. She’ll a carnaholic and has a thing for salumi (charcuterie) and things like tagliata di manzo (sliced steak). My interests, on the other hand, are those in the name of this blog. So it was a great pleasure to get back to interesting Italian craft beers and Roman baked goods. Notably indulgent, sweet pastry-based breakfasts.

Luca and the pastry display

I can’t do it every day, and as I’m not a coffee drinker I am missing out on half of the appeal of an Italian café at breakfast time (with the Italian word caffè meaning both coffee and café), but I’m more than happy to scoff multiple Roman breakfast pastries in a sitting. And do that for several days in a row, until my body starts to put its stamp its foot and demand the more nutritionally fulfilling virtues of my homemade granola.

At its simplest, an Italian breakfast is a cornetto, the Italian equivalent of the French croissant, which I wrote about here, and a cappuccino. I worry about breaking Italian food etiquette. Even ordering tea or hot chocolate, instead of coffee makes me a little nervous. The latter, I found out, would only be served in most cafés in the winter; as soon as the weather started warming up a request would be met with a typically Roman café rejection, which somehow carried the message of “Don’t be ridiculous, idiot” in a gesture or expression even if when the words weren’t used.

It’s not that I’m always keen to conform to etiquette, but I am possibly a bit on that other famous spectrum, so like to know what the rules are. I worry and worry – then I see a bloke ordering a cornetto semplice (simple or basic, ie plain) and asking for it to be split in two and filled with aerosol whipped cream in Barberini café in Testaccio (via Marmorata 43). Despite being one of those places that gets frequented by the pavement-clagging Testaccio food tourists, Barberini retains a traditional vibe. So if the guy can ask for his cornettolike that, I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much.

I’d never seen this treatment of a cornetto before, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise – firstly, as cornetti do come with various fillings, include crema (custard), which Luca spent a good ten minutes mining out on one of our visits, accompanied by a snazzy babycino.

Babycino crop

And secondly, another classic Roman breakfast pastry is the maritozzo, which I wrote about here and give a recipe for here. The maritozzo is an enriched dough bun that comes in two typical forms: plain or filled with vast amounts of cream. I’d had a session recipe testing with Luca’s mum, Rachel, busy on her capolavoro recipe book, so the following morning I had to try a maritozzo from Bernebei, alongside a saccotino al cioccolato, the equivalent of a pain au chocolat. Ours stood up well against theirs I’m pleased to report.

Now we’re living in Lewes, a small English town, it can be a little challenging to even get a good croissant (Flint Owl Bakery does great ones, but they can sell out fast), and I’m dubious one could get a real cornetto anywhere in the UK. So it was good to gorge. The other quotidian baked product I really miss from Rome, and is again nigh-on impossible to get in Britain, is the classic street snack of pizza bianca, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

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Italian breakfast, and why a cornetto isn’t a croissant

Cornetto, saccottino and cappucino at Baylon Cafe, Trastevere, Rome

Let the Games Begin (Che la festa cominci) is the latest novel by Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti. He’s probably best known for Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared), the 2001 novel that became a film in 2003.

A pretty broad satire of contemporary Roman society, Let the Games Begin is passingly entertaining, but it suffers from less-than-perfect translation and editing. As well as some fairly rudimentary editorial errors, the idiomatic translation doesn’t feel quite right. It’s also quite haphazard with its translation of Italian food names. While it’s content to refer to supplì as supplì, it seems to determinedly translate cornetto as croissant.

A cornetto (“little horn”) is not a croissant (French for “crescent”). Nor is it an ice-cream. It’s an Italian relative of the croissant, likely with the same origins, but today a distinct product. Sure they look similar, but they’re slightly different. Read on.

No one is in agreement about the origins of the crescent-shaped pastry, but one abiding story (or myth) is that it was invented in Austria to commemorate the defeat of the Ottomans, who besieged the city in 1683. Wikipedia gives more background. Whatever the origins of the pastry (other variables include chiffel and kipfel), since its birth the regional and national versions have diverged.

Breakfast pastries
Both the croissant and the cornetto are breakfast pastries. The quintessential breakfast I witness being consumed day-in day-out in Rome is a coffee – either a simple caffè (espresso) or cappucino (often just called cappuccio in Rome) – with a cornetto, normally just a cornetto semplice (“simple”, ie plain).

Many cafés offer a large selection of different breakfast pastries, or lieviti (literally “yeasteds” or “risens”, meaning pastries made with a yeasted dough) and if possible I get a saccottino al cioccolato. In Italian, a sacco is a sack, so this literally is a “little sack with chocolate”. And yes, it closely resembles another French – or Viennese – pastry: the pain au chocolat, known by many ignoramuses as a “chocolate croissant” . Guys, it’s not a crescent-shape, so how can it be a croissant?

The cornetto semplice is also apparently also known as the cornetto vuoto (“empty”), to contrast it with various types of cornetti ripieni (“filled”). These include cornetto alla crema (with custard), alla marmellata (with jam, marmalade or other conserve), al miele (with honey; this is often made with an integrale, wholewheat, dough), and cornetto al cioccolato. The latter is an actual cornetto that is usually filled with that vile brown vegetable-oil product beloved of Italians, Nutella.

Choice of pastries at Baylon Cafe, Trastevere, Rome

The (subtle) difference
The French really don’t go in for all these filled variables, beyond ones with almond paste, but the biggest difference between cornetti and croissant is the lamination.

A proper croissant must be made with butter, and must be repeatedly folded and rolled, to achieve a lamination wherein the rolled dough contains several thin layers of the fat. When the croissant is baked, water in the dough is turned to steam, but this is trapped by the fat, causing pressure and rising between the layers. The resulting pastry, when done right, should be crisp and flaky, with a taste of butter but no greasiness.

A cornetto on the other hand isn’t so assiduously laminated, and can even be made with lard, not butter. The dough also contains more sugar. The result is a pastry that is just a lot sweeter than a proper French croissant, and can have a more enriched bread or cake-like texture, more like a French brioche. Some cornetti are very flaky and like croissants, but many others are more cakey; there’s a lot of variation.

Indeed, cornetti are sometimes called brioche in some northern parts of Italy, though in Naples, Sicily and parts of south with a historical French influence, the name brioche is used for a pastry more like the Gallic version. But that’s another story.

Cappuccio, spremuta, pastries at Caffe Arabo, Trastevere, Rome

A couple of cafés
Our lifestyle at the moment takes us to two cafes regularly for weekend morning cornetti. I’m not saying these have the best cornetti in Rome – how could I, without sampling cornetti in every single one of the thousands of cafés and pasticcerie in Rome? – but they’re places we enjoy.

The first is Baylon, which we started frequenting because… well, I can’t really remember. They’re so grumpy and resolutely unfriendly that even after we’ve been going there two years only one of the staff actually acknowledges us. The Ricardo Darin-lookalike is a particular sourpuss. Unlike many more traditional Roman cafés, however, it has space to hang out, and Wi-Fi. Plus, unlike many places in the tourist nexus of Trastevere, they don’t charge stupid prices.

So we keep on going back – partly for the space, partly as we can get our Saturday morning weekly English language paper nearby, and partly because they it has great selection of lieviti. Apparently it used to be a local landmark pasticceria (pastry bakery), so at least they have their own kitchens for the baking.

Our Sunday routine, on the other hand, developed as we used to go down to the farmers’ market in Testaccio’s Ex-Mattatoio every week. Although that’s now sadly been shunted further out of town, at least a direct-from-farm shop has opened near Ponte Testaccio, on the Trastevere Station side of the river, where we can get many of the same quality fresh products. There’s also Porta Portese market every Sunday, with its enormous selection of tat, junk and bric-a-brac.

Case of pastries at Caffe Arabo, Trastevere, Rome

On our route down the hill from our house, via the massively grand 19th century, weed-infested, broken-glass strewn, graffitied Ugo Bassi steps, we go to Caffè Arabo on Viale di Trastevere. This is a more traditional Roman café, no Wi-Fi or anything of that poncy nonsense, but it’s still kinda idiosyncratic. Plus, a couple of the staff not only recognise us but are friendly, even amiably laughing at my ordering a (hot) tea on a hot day. “The British drink tea in every season, every weather,” I shrugged.

They don’t have a kitchen, so their cornetti are bought-in, but they’re not bad. And occasionally they even have saccottini al cioccolato to satisfy my chocolate cravings.

Neither places, however, has croissant. A few Roman cafés do apparently do French-style croissant, but I’ve yet to sample them.

Of course, not everyone has a coffee and cornetto for breakfast or elevenses here in Rome. We sat down at Arabo last Sunday, Fran ordered a cappucino and cornetto, I ordered a spremuta d’arancia (freshly sqeezed orange juice) and a saccattino al cioccolato – then two guys sad down beside us and ordered beers. It was 10.30am.

Info
Baylon Café
Via San Francesco A Ripa 151, 00153 Rome
bayloncafe.com

Caffè Arabo
Viale di Trastevere 20, 00152 Rome

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