This is the Pastry Basket, a Breakfast Week series in which Eater profiles noteworthy breakfast pastries. Next up: cornetti.
Visit any café in Italy before 11:00 a.m. and you'll encounter one of the few rituals that unifies a culturally diverse nation: people of all ages, occupations, and social classes gathering at the counter for coffee (generally an espresso or a cappuccino) and a pastry (usually a factory-made, frozen cornetto). Every morning, more than 10 million Italians visit a café for this brief transaction, which typically lasts no more than a few minutes and costs an average of €2.20. While many features of Italy's varied food cultures showcase regional identity, breakfast is relatively standardized across regions.
The rite is so pervasive, you might confuse morning cornetti for a deeply-rooted Italian tradition.
The rite is so pervasive in all of Italy's 20 regions, you might confuse it for a deeply rooted, centuries-long tradition. Instead, the countrywide breakfast ritual is new by Italian standards. Until the mid-20th century, the country's largely rural and impoverished populace ate a simple, homemade meal at dawn, often incorporating savory elements like leftovers from the previous night's dinner. For Italian peasants, breakfast was a purely utilitarian meal, a source of calories providing fuel for facing hardship; meanwhile, the aristocracy enjoyed the indulgence of leisurely, late morning breakfast at home or in a café.
Italy's post-war economic boom, coupled with growing urban populations, caused radical shifts in Italy's food systems and dining customs, including the way Italians procured breakfast. "Consumers had a bit more money to spend and began eating breakfast away from the house," recounts Pierluigi Roscioli, fourth-generation baker and owner of Antico Forno Roscioli in central Rome. "The great baking families began offering a greater variety of breakfast options." In Rome, for example, breakfast in the ‘50s or ‘60s might be a maritozzo (a leavened, butter-based bun), ciambellone (a kind of pound cake), pane all'olio (olive oil enriched bread), or pizza bianca (a local flatbread).
"Things began to change in the 1970s when companies like Tre Marie, Motta, and Alemagna introduced frozen cornetti and other pastries to the market," Roscioli says. "Now in Rome, 90 percent of breakfast pastries are of the frozen variety." Regional specialties in Rome and elsewhere were subverted as the mass-produced frozen cornetto became a nationwide phenomenon reaching every corner of Italy.
What Is a Cornetto and Where Does it Come From?
A cornetto resembles a French croissant and comes in a range of flavors: A cornetto semplice may have a sweet glaze but no filling, while a cornetto ripieno may be filled with jam, custard, Nutella, chocolate, or honey-flavored paste. Generally speaking, cornetti are made with margarine, which is cheaper and easier to work with than butter, and have a breadier consistency than French croissants. They are also a great deal sweeter.
Although the true history of the cornetto is unknown, it nevertheless has a tidy origin myth rich in symbolism and nostalgia. According to legend, a Viennese baker was preparing dough during the 1683 Siege of Vienna when he heard the attacking Ottoman forces digging a tunnel beneath his shop. He alerted the authorities, saving the city from certain ruin and ending the Ottoman advance into Europe. To commemorate the triumph, the baker whipped up a pastry that resembled the crescent on the Ottoman flag; he called this creation the kipfel. Bakers in northeastern Italy claim the kipfel arrived in Venice soon after and remains unchanged, despite adopting different names, including brioche and cornetto.
At the Café
The story is historically dubious at best and fails to account for the cornetto's absolutely meteoric rise to breakfast dominance beginning four decades ago. To understand how cornetti became Italy's ubiquitous breakfast food, we must look to Milan's historic panettone makers: Tre Marie (founded 1896), Motta (founded 1919), and Alemagna (founded 1921). All three bakeries began as small operations specializing in Christmas breads. Throughout the ‘20s and '30s the companies grew and expanded their operations, each embracing clever marketing and mass production in pursuit of market dominance. After decades spent applying mass production and distribution principles to panettone and other seasonal goods, Tre Marie, Motta, and Alemagna began to experiment with frozen pastries, introducing frozen cornetti to the market in the 1970s. Cafés all over Italy embraced the low-cost, high-margin innovation. Frozen cornetti required little skill to prepare, reduced waste, and maximized profits — and they quickly spread to café counters everywhere.
Competition between Motta and Alemagna intensified and drove them into new sectors, including food service, and in the 1960s, branded rest stops like Motta's Motta-grill, and Alemagna'a Autobar grew in number, delivering frozen pastries — and other industrial foods — to an even wider audience. While the 1960s saw explosive growth of Motta and Alemagna's diverse businesses, by the 1970s financial ruin had taken down the two giants, in spite of the introduction of frozen cornetti. The Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI), a now-defunct government agency that rescued failing companies from bankruptcy, acquired Motta and Alemagna, as well as the Pavesi rest stop company. IRI consolidated the three companies, forming Autogrill. Purchased by the Benetton family's holding company in the mid-1990s, Autogrill is now one of the world's largest food-service outfits. In addition to Autogrill, Italy's ubiquitous highway rest stop, the company operates 4,300 points of sale on four continents and reaches nearly one billion customers annually.
While Tre Marie, Motta, Alemagna, and other companies transformed and standardized Italian breakfast at the café, breakfast at home was shaped by companies like Mulino Bianco. Founded in Parma by the multibillion-dollar European pasta empire Barilla in 1974, Mulino Bianco manufactured and distributed the myth of Italian breakfast as a multi-generational, family-oriented, wholesome endeavor. Through a years-long marketing campaign that John Dickie, professor of Italian studies at University College London, calls "perhaps the most successful campaign in the history of Italian television," Mulino Bianco positioned their factory-made products as the quintessential expression of quality and authenticity.
The campaign in question features an episodic series of television ads starring the perfect country-dwelling Italian family: Federico, a journalist, his wife Giulia, a teacher, their two kids, and a grandfather. The series was directed by Academy Award-winner Giuseppe Tornatore of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and features a score by acclaimed composer Ennio Morricone. Rife with scenes of aspirational country living, the spots contributed to Mulino Bianco's growth. That growth continues today, although the happy Italian family in the television campaigns has long since been replaced; Antonio Banderas has been the company's spokesperson since 2012, promoting the Mulino Bianco menu of factory-made breakfast biscuits, pound cakes, and yes, cornetti.
Huge marketing budgets, vast reach, and an indoctrinated public mean industrial foods have a secure place at the Italian breakfast table and café counter. Still, there is hope. At least in Rome, new bakeries like Panificio Bonci and pastry shops like century-old Pasticceria Regoli and recently opened Roscioli Caffè suggest a growing interest in good morning eating. Thoughtfully made breakfast is out there — if you're looking for it.