It’s almost impossible to visit Italy and to not be tempted, at least once, by a cream-filled or sugar-coated cornetto. It’s a staple of the light, quick, and inexpensive Italian breakfast, and it pairs perfectly with a cappuccino or an espresso. From pistachio to Nutella, to honey and apricot jam, there’s a cornetto to fit just about everyone’s taste — but where did it originate, and how has it evolved?  

Cornetto vs. Croissant: What’s the Difference? 

The Italian word cornetto translates to “little horn,” due to its shape. In the north of Italy, the cornetto is typically called a brioche. The French croissant, which translates to “crescent,” is often used synonymously with the cornetto, but the two are indeed different. 

A traditional cornetto is made with flour, milk, sugar, salt, butter (or, often, margarine), yeast, and eggs. In the south of Italy, lard may sometimes be used instead of butter. The higher quantity of sugar and butter make it sweeter and more aromatic than a French croissant. Cornetti do not use the same rigorous lamination process, making their texture more cakelike, whereas a croissant’s buttery layers are more evocative of a pastry. 

Croissants, on the other hand, are not sweetened and do not use eggs, except in the form of an egg wash, which may be brushed over top before baking. They are characterized by their buttery flavor and are much lighter. They have less sugar, and they are also a different shape: cornetti are generally more straight, while croissants are more curled and stand taller due to their lamination-induced layers. 

The Origin of the Cornetto 

The origin of the cornetto is largely disputed, though there’s one legend that seems to stand out. The legend states that it was created during the 1683 Siege of Vienna incited by Ottoman forces. A Viennese baker heard them digging a tunnel underneath his bakery, leading him to alert authorities. In the end, he saved the city by defeating the Turks, stopping Ottoman forces from besieging the city. 

In honor of this triumphant success, the same baker created a pastry to resemble the Ottoman Empire flag’s crescent, calling it the kipferl. Regardless of the legend’s truth, the kipferl is a popular sweet across Europe, particularly in Austria and Germany. It is also referred to as the inspiration behind the French croissant. 

Soon after the events in 1683, it made its way to the Republic of Venice during a period of commercial trade between Vienna and Venice. Besides the name’s shift from kipfel to cornetto, the recipe hasn’t changed much and has remained an important Italian sweet. 

The Evolution of the Cornetto 

While its supposed origin dates back to the 17th century, the cornetto grew in popularity in the 1970s when three major food companies — Tre Marie, Motta, and Alemagna — introduced Italy to the frozen cornetto. This completely changed the game for many bars across the country, as they allowed them to serve a quality product while maximizing profits. However, there are still some bars that offer fresh cornetti that are made overnight by cornettari bakeries. 

In addition to the frozen cornetto, the same companies, among others, like Mulino Bianco, introduced the “portable” cornetto. Today, these are offered in the supermarket and in vending machines in a wide variety of flavors, similar to those at the bar. This allows customers to enjoy the satisfaction of a cornetto without leaving their home. 

The humble-yet-ubiquitous cornetto embodies much of what Italian cuisine represents: it’s flavorful, traditional, and steeped in history. From early legends to modern adaptations, the cornetto has remained a beloved symbol of Italian pastry throughout the generations. And while the pre-packaged cornetto is convenient, go for a fresh one the next time you find yourself at a bar. They’re always better. 

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