Cornetto Chronicles: The Meeting Place

I don’t know what makes a good cornetto.  If you had me perform a blind taste test between a croissant and a cornetto, I could tell you which one was which, for sure. If you gave me two different croissants, I would have no problem describing the differences between them.  If you gave me two cornetti, however, there would be some difficulties.  While I enjoy eating them, I haven’t had enough in my life to be able to distinguish a so-called good one from a poorly made one.

One of my favorite parts of my weekend routine is indulging in a little slice of croissant heaven.  Unfortunately, I’m in Italy this year and  won’t be finding any brilliant croissants.  There will be no blog posts where I complain that Italians, like the English, just don’t understand French patisserie.  My special morning routine will involve a cornetto e un vero cappuccino.  While I’m excited to dip my toes into the realm of Italian patisserie, I will miss my beloved croissants.  The flavor of a cornetto is lovely, but there is a crescent shaped, buttery spot in my heart where the croissant lives.

Before I get started tasting the different varieties of cornetto that Pavia (and Italy in general) has to offer, I did a bit of research so I can know what to expect going into the bar.

Italians may also call a cornetto a brioche, generally depending on the region (the north tends to use brioche while the south and center prefer cornetto).  Translating cornetto to croissant is tempting, but the two breakfast pastries are quite different .  Italian cornetti are usually filled with pastry cream, marmalade or nutella. Instead of ordering a un cornetto semplice (a plain cornetto), you order un cornetto vuoto (an empty cornetto) if you want a pastry without any filling.

There are a variety of differences between the croissant and cornetto that go beyond filling. Here’s a great recipe if you’re looking for one!

I am not going to attempt to describe the cornetti that I eat in Italy.  I have no idea how to.  Instead, I’ll recount my stories and experiences sampling the different cornetti vuoti in Pavia.  All accompanied by a cappuccino, of course.

On the Thursday morning of my first week in Pavia I knew it was time to indulge in one of my favorite hobbies: breakfast pastry with coffee and a book.  Walking around the city for the previous days I’d passed countless bars and gazed in, wondering how they worked, who went in there and, most importantly, if their cornetti were any good.  So far all the coffee I’d consumed at Italian bars was more than disappointing.  While the temptation to play the safe route and eat a bowl of cereal was enticing, I knew that I’d be much happier learning to navigate one of my favorite worlds.  So I went.

I went to the first bar that I came across upon leaving my house, which was probably less than two minutes away.  Taking I deep breath, I walked in, went up to the bar and placed my order: un cornetto vuoto e un cappuccino per piacere.  Seeing a couple empty tables, I went to sit down, taking the cornetto that was promptly placed on a ceramic plate with a paper napkin with me.

It took a while to get my cappuccino, an Italian bar is busy in the morning, but I patiently sat waiting, rereading one of my favorite books.  There was a variety of people inside, but they all seemed so unlike me.  They weren’t the people who you find in Almondine, Ceci Cela or Dominque Ansel.  There was a man standing at the back of the bar playing with what seemed to be a slot machine. There was an old couple sitting down with their tiny espresso cups reading La Reppublica and an endless stream of people stopping at the bar, throwing back un caffè after stirring in a single sugar and leaving immediately.

My cappuccino arrived looking mediocre.  That’s how cappuccini look in Italy, I’ll have to get over it.  I took a sip, I ripped off a piece of the cornetto, my fingers sticky from the sugar-y outside.  I tasted it; dense, sweet and apricot-y.  I ripped off another piece and dipped it in the foam of my cappuccino.  I didn’t care that I was, theoretically, eating the cornetto improperly.  Ripping off small bits instead of biting directly into it helped me enjoy it.

It was bigger than it looked.  Inside was completely dense, not air-filled like my favorite croissants.  That butter flavor wasn’t there, it was more brioche-like.  Slowly, I ate the cornetto and drank my cappuccino at the same time.  They worked well together, balancing the flavors out.  By the end I was full, my hands were sticky and I still had a bit of coffee left.

The elder couple was still reading their newspaper, espresso tazzine long-gone empty.  The person playing with the slot machine seemed to have won something, if the ringing that erupted was any indication.  I sat for a few more moments, reading.  There was no ambiance and I didn’t linger.  I simply went to the register, paid and left.

I miss the lovely atmosphere of my favorite New York City cafes that try to model themselves on French boulangeries, only to make themselves feel even more American.  I miss feeling free to linger and linger and linger.  Maybe that cafe exists in Pavia, maybe I just have to keep searching.  I left meeting place, receipt in my wallet, not eager to go back but glad for having gone.

Do you have a morning breakfast ritual?


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