It’s midnight and Donatella is waiting in the queue at Il Maritozzaro in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. While her preteen son trails sulkily behind her, she is lit up with childlike excitement. “He’s complaining that he’s tired,” she says. “But that’s just because he hasn’t seen it yet.” This nocturnal adventure is an important family occasion: Donatella is bringing her son for his first ever maritozzo, a big, round brioche-type bun bursting with fresh cream.
Legend tells that maritozzi were originally offered by a bride as a gift to her new husband (“marito” in Italian) on their wedding night; “tozzo,” which means short and fat, refers to the shape of the bun — not the shape of the groom. The roots of the pastry can be traced back to Pescara, a nearby seaside town, but as Katia, another hungry visitor, explains, “Maybe the maritozzo is not from Rome, but Il Maritozzaro is as Roman as it gets.”
The shop is widely agreed to make the best maritozzi in the city, but its quintessential local feature is the opening hours. In Rome, when the evening is coming to an end, it is not a kebab or a slice of pizza that late-night revelers crave, but something sweet. Il Maritozzaro is open 24/7, but the busiest time is 11 p.m. onward, when the bar, the two tiny outdoor tables, and the entire street corner on which it stands fill up with Romans chatting, laughing, and plunging their faces into the creamy depths of their maritozzi.
A similar scene is playing out at dozens of nighttime bakeries across the city. They’re open late into the night, serving up Nutella-filled croissants and bombas, doughnuts oozing with custard; often, each bakery will specialize in one specific treat. A few streets away from Il Maritozzaro, Il Cornettone has been selling cornetti, filled croissants, at all hours for over 30 years in an easy, inclusive atmosphere. Owner Antonio Schina explains that, unlike the French croissant made with butter, the Italian cornetto is made with margarine, making it lighter and therefore, he insists, completely acceptable to eat several in one late-night sitting. This is good news because inside the laboratorio, tray after tray of cornetti are stuffed with pistachio cream, strawberry jelly, and all manner of other fillings. It’s nearly impossible to choose just one flavor to try.
How did late-night desserts get so popular?
Like any global capital, Rome stays open late, as young (and young-at-heart) locals buzz about the city’s many restaurants and bars. At the same time, the city’s diligent baking workforce arrives at their bakeries early in the morning to prep the day’s offerings. It was only a matter of time until these two groups overlapped, creating a late-night market for early-morning treats.
This story played out in real time at Pasticceria Lambiase, across town from Il Maritozzaro and Il Cornettone. The business began as a standard daytime bakery, but when the kitchen fired up the ovens in the early morning, partygoers on the way home from nearby student bars would bang desperately on the doors of the laboratorio, lured by the sweet smell of the pastries. When the 4 a.m. queues became so long that neighbors started to complain and the police came inquiring, owner Antonio Lambiase, a charming Neapolitan who has been working in pastry his whole life, gave in and turned Pasticceria Lambiase into a full-fledged nighttime bakery in order to better handle demand.
The tradition isn’t just for college students. You’ll find all types of diners lining up at bakeries deep into the night: teenagers and families, old friends and late-night workers, anyone willing to stay up late.
What makes Rome’s bakeries so good?
Italians tend to prefer a sweet breakfast, and Rome’s nocturnal bakeries serve up the same items that the city’s inhabitants typically eat alongside a cappuccino in the morning (though at night the coffee of choice is espresso). And yet there is a marked difference between eating a pastry to start your day and eating one to end it.
As journalist Marco Lodoli puts it, “If the cornetto is vital in the early morning, late at night it becomes pure pleasure.” In fact, one of the most common expressions Romans use to describe the nighttime pastry — particularly the maritozzo — is as “una coccola:” a cuddle. Lodoli claims that stopping for a late-night cornetto is so enjoyable it can make you forget about early flights or important business meetings the next morning. Biting into a softball-sized maritozzo, it’s impossible not to get cream all over your face — or think about much else.
Even more than comfort food, Rome’s late-night pastries remind eaters that pleasure is an irrefutable core aspect of eating, with some incredibly overt implications about the joy they bring. Pasticceria Lambiase is better known by the name of its most iconic pastry, la sorchetta doppio schizzo, which literally translates to “the double-squirt pussy.” A thin disk of pastry that roughly fits into your palm, the sorchetta is finished with a squirt of cream and a drizzle of chocolate.
Lambiase created the treat from a healthy mixture of frugality and obscenity. “I realized that if I took the dough and cut it into disks instead of making cornetto out of it, I could make triple the amount of pastries,” he explains. “And then, when we baked the first sorchetta, I held it out to my colleague and said, ‘What does this look like to you?’” Now, people come from all over Rome and the world — Lambiase proudly shows off magazine cuttings from Korea and Japan — to try his signature pastry. He winks. “It’s a little vulgar, but it’s nice, no?”
Even subtler late-night Italian pastries are more than a little sensual. A true feast for the eyes, they tend to be bigger and rather messier than cousins in other European nations, usually overflowing with cream or dripping in Nutella. Their customary pairing, a strong espresso, makes for a satisfying balance between bitter and sweet.
Back in the queue at Il Maritozzaro, Donatella has procured maritozzi for herself and her son. He is admittedly less impressed than hoped. But Donatella hasn’t been able to come to the bakery as often since the family moved out to the suburbs, and her delight at being reunited with her favorite pastry eclipses her son’s underwhelmed reaction. The significance of the moment feels more symbolic in nature, anyway: It marks the passing on of a great tradition from parent to child. “I’ve been coming here at night since I was 18,” she explains. “It has accompanied Romans across generations.”
In a country with hundreds of generation-spanning, location-specific, oft-conflicting rules and rituals around food, Romans have found an unexpected way to end great nights out, no matter what is on the horizon when the sun rises. Judging by the cream-covered smiles on the faces of everyone at Il Maritozzaro, it’s impossible not to have a good time.
Where to find bakeries open late in Rome
An institution in the city since 1960, Il Maritozzaro serves up the classic maritozzo as well as pistachio and chocolate varieties. Inside the tiny bar, Patrizia Imperati takes orders and shouts them to Mario Ciampella, the pastry chef, who picks up bun after bun of fresh brioche, cleaves them open with a sharp knife, and deftly spoons in an enormous dollop of fresh cream. You’ll also find a wealth of other sweet treats and some excellent coffee. Just make sure to pay before you order, and get in and out of there quickly as there’s sure to be a line of hungry people waiting behind you.
50 Via Ettore Rolli, Rome, Italy, 00153
The name of this spot translates to “the big cornetto,” and it’s owned by the equally large Antonio Schina. Cornetti come with every filling imaginable, including Kinder Bueno, fresh cream, and Nutella. This is a great choice if you’re looking for somewhere to sit and enjoy your nighttime snack with a beer and an espresso.
215/219 Via Oderisi da Gubbio, Rome, Italy 00146
You’d be forgiven for walking past the nondescript exterior of Pasticceria Lambiase. The bakery is located in a basement down a set of stairs, but the smell alone can draw you in. Lambiase and his team dish up fresh batches of sorchetta, as well as typical pastries from the south of Italy, like Neapolitan sfogliatelle.
47 Via Cernaia, Rome, Italy, 00185
Known for its bomba — a filled, deep-fried doughnut — and the magnificent pesca — an incredibly sweet, boozy, cream-filled doughnut crafted to look like a pink peach — Dolce Maniera is located near the Vatican. Here, you descend a small staircase into the miniscule basement bakery, which is packed wall-to-wall with pastries, meaning you can survey the full selection while waiting in the queue to make an informed decision.
27 Via Barletta, Rome, Italy, 00192
Lara Gilmour is a journalist exploring sustainability in food. She tells stories about how what we eat can impact and sustain our culture, and she’s passionate about food system transformation.
Giulia Verdinelli is a photographer specialising in culinary storytelling. She is passionate about capturing the authentic emotions that revolve around every aspect of the food journey, from farm to stomach.