The cornetto is a strange little thing. I don’t mean the ice cream that you can get throughout Europe that is roughly equivalent to a mini-version of the American Drumstick, I mean the Italian breakfast pastry. It’s a bit like a croissant in shape and texture, but the pastry is denser, less light and airy. There isn’t a butter flavor that knocks you off your feet, there’s another, harder to define flavor that slowly envelopes your tongue and makes you exclaim, ‘oh!’ Despite my mother’s assertion that the indescribable Italian flavor is rum, I think it’s something with a more citrus note. Apricot-y or amaretto-y.
I haven’t been able to find a proper Italian-style cornetto in New York yet, not that I’d been looking. Perhaps Eataly would be a mecca for these types of things, but my opinions of Eataly aren’t the highest—perhaps because almost no one I’ve talked to has previously realized that Eataly is an Italian brand, a product of the slow foods movement from Torino. Couple that with never ending lines, over priced biscotti and lavazza coffee and I stay away. You can get baci anywhere and better gelato from L’Arte del Gelato (the only truly great gelato in New York, I don’t care if Grom is properly Italian). I’m not a big fan of New York-style Italian eateries. The spray on Italian decor and atmosphere leaves me feeling ashamed of my culture. Aren’t we the land that claims to be a land because of the words of Dante, Petrarch and Bocaccio? You could (and do) easily forget that when you see people queuing for hours at Grimaldi’s.
Sant Ambroeus is a completely different story; a much more compelling one. On the last Thursday we both had free before my mother returned to the gruelling schedule of a university teacher, we headed over the the West Village outpost of Sant Ambroeus. Although the original location is on the Upper East Side, anybody looking to save any money and have a more pleasant experience should head to the one downtown. The menus may differ slightly, but one of those differences is the prices. Pretty much everything is cheaper (by nearly 50¢). As we glanced through the breakfast menu I new immediately that I would be getting a plain cornetto.
Although the menu describes the cornetto as a brioche, my Italian grammar lessons taught me that the Italian word for brioche is … brioche. I think they used the term brioche to describe the cornetto simply because the texture is closer to that of the french bread than to a croissant. It may prevent some angry customers. My mother and I debated for a few moments whether it was a proper cornetto or a brioche. We both ordered a plain one, eager to be surprised or have our expectations met.
And I was right. Thank you Italian grammar, you’re good for something!
As soon as I ripped off a bit of the cornetto, I knew immediately that it was the real deal. This was truly an example of an Italian pastry. The texture fell somewhere in between what you might think of as a French brioche and croissant with a flavor that was a fusion of citrus, rum and almond. I was exclaiming how brilliant it was from the first bite.
My mother ordered a cappuccino that was quite nice as well. It was in the proper thirds proportion, which startled me. It’s so rare to find that and I certainly didn’t expect to see that at a posh restaurant in the West Village. I dunked a bit of my cornetto into the schiuma on her cappuccino. It was a perfect breakfast moment. While I don’t usually drink juice, I could resist the fresh apricot juice on the menu. Apricot juice was a staple of my trip to Italy in 2009 and ever since, I’ve been eager to drink the stuff whenever I could find it. The apricot juice at Sant Ambroeus was thick and deeply apricot-y. It was a perfect specimen of the elusive juice.
Sant Ambroeus may be expensive, but if you’re looking for proper good Italian food, it’s worth it. Not to mention, finding a place where you can eat outside in New York and enjoy the experience is so rare, you might as well take advantage when you can find it. I’ll certainly be back to have that cornetto again!
Do you prefer Italian desserts or French ones? Or another regional type?