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Mar 2, 2014 02:34 PM

Prato (just outside Florence) Pasticceria cornetto face-off

As those who know Florence can probably attest if you want good pastry, or even a decent cornetto in the morning Florence itself can be something of a wasteland, but a short 20-minute train ride to the north will bring you to Prato where 2 pastry masters: Paolo Sacchetti and Luca Mannori duel it out for regional honours and, arguably, best pastry in Italy. It's well worth making the pilgrimage to either one.

I decided to try them in a head-to-head competition; being within 10 minutes' walk of one another it's not hard. In this case I focussed on the morning ritual cornetto, being at once the most basic and yet in some ways most technically demanding of the pastry arts, because there's nowhere to hide behind bad technique.

It should be said that both make excellent cakes as well; Sacchetti's are in a more traditional idiom; Mannori goes for a modern style. I might give a slight nod to Mannori for interest but in terms of the flavour in your mouth its an even toss.

The Mannori shop is the more stylish and sophisticated, not to mention larger, of the 2, and it has a large indoor seating area, which is nice if you come in late winter with a cool rain coming down lightly but insistently. Sacchetti's Nuovo Mondo is a real hole-in-the-wall, a tiny pastry shop squeezed into a narrow shopfront on a narrow street in central Prato - the sort of place that you'll pass by in an instant without even realising there was anything there. Indeed, the atmosphere of both seems to convey in style the same prevailing ethos as their owners - the one (Mannori) trendy and avant-garde, the other (Sacchetti) recreating the essence of tradition.

The basic test, the simple, unfilled cornetto, was what I made the reference point. Mannori's are light and spongy, softer perhaps than usual and certainly flakier. However I did think there was room for improvement, they don't quite have the utter etherealness that can be possible. Sacchetti's were closer to the reference, infinitely flaky and with a crisper, even lighter sfogliata, one that I shall have to test soon against my current champion, Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome.

On the other hand Mannori's cornetto alla crema is sublime; here it's the pastry cream that takes the starring role. Mannori is very generous with his inspired interpretation of the cream, which makes for a decadently messy experience and one of the ultimate expositions of the art. Sacchetti didn't have them on offer any of the times that I went so I decided to opt for one of his "regulars", the lemon millefoglie. A thick layer of lemon pastry cream between 2 sheets of pastry, it has a satisfying consistency and the pastry is about as good as you can get. A lot of butter helps - a lot more than most pasticcerie use - so that the pastry itself almost dissolves and hasn't a hint of dryness.

For this round, at least, then, Sacchetti just edges out Luca Mannori. But why limit yourself to one? As long as you're in the area, it's just as well to try both. The critical thing really is the excuse to get out of the pit of pastry mediocrity in Florence itself and into somewhere where people are making an effort.

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  1. At the risk of sounding ungrateful I have to say you lost me at "best pastry in Italy." Not only do I doubt you've done the required taste tests but in some parts of Italy (mercifully!) nobody eats cornetti (if they can help it) of any type . Don't know what is meant by "cakes" in this context -- and in whose "traditional idiom"? (Prato's?)

    But sincerely thanks. I never eat cornetti anymore because I'd never found one anywhere in Italy (except the salty type) so if I am ever in Prato at the appropriate hour I will give these a try and see if they change my mind.

    5 Replies
    1. re: kmzed

      Just realized my post wasn't very clear, since I inadvertantly dropped some words. Meant to type "never eat cornetti anymore because I never found one anywhere in Italy that personally I enjoy eating..."

      (Same goes for restaurant burgers. ;) )

      1. re: kmzed

        Yes, "traditional idiom" in this case means Pratese.

        On changing your mind: I think there is an important point here, part of why I posted. There's no doubt that the proliferation of cheap, mass-produced cornetti available in Italy can lead people to despair of the possibility of good ones existing. However I think when the discerning part of the population gives up hope or starts to imagine that a specific food is dire *as a category* that's when something good and possibly traditional in a food culture starts to die.

        When no one cares, or abandons hope, then even the producers who want to make a quality product are going to be driven out of business because the people who care enough to make the effort to go out of their way to find them stop trying, and those who don't care aren't going to try in the first place. So they'll go out of business - except to the extent that perhaps they're the local shop for that product and people buy them out of convenience rather than particular preference...but as soon as someone opens nearby who's cheaper, the indifferent clientele will go there.

        However, such an extreme situation is rare. A happier, and usually more realistic, outlook, is to start from the premise that for anything you care to name, someone is bound to exist who has a dedication to making a quality product - it's a matter of identifying and finding these people. In a similar vein for example, the hamburger is an iconic part of American eating, and just because the ubiquity of cheap fast food ensures that a majority of hamburgers to be found are going to be abysmal, that in no means ensures that there are *no* good hamburgers to be found in the USA. Cornetti and Italy have a similar relationship. That's a major reason I put up posts like this - to make known to people and give due recognition to the places who are still making an effort.

        On " pastry in Italy", that's why I used the word "arguably" - to indicate that a case might be made but is in no means to be considered conclusive or authoritative.

        In a larger context, though, it seems to me that subjective evaluations like "best pastry" are always going to be a matter of opinion and not fact. But I think there must also always be room in a discussion for people to express superlatives regarding opinion or the discussion is reduced to a series of banal, qualified, relative statements with little ability to inform, much less persuade. Something of the warmth of real human interaction is lost when any positive statement is expected to be backed with exhaustive proof. This applies to any discussion on CH or anywhere else where a matter of human experience and interest rather than a scientific, logical, or legal matter is being discussed.

        In the specific case of "required taste tests", I'm not claiming that I've done an exhaustive survey. In fact, it's questionable whether such an exhaustive evaluation would be of much use anyway because quality is a moving target, and the time it would take to do this for all of Italy would probably consume several lifetimes. So you'd never have a complete "snapshot". I don't think a term like "required" can apply in this sense.

        However based on my experience in one area where my tasting knowledge and experience is probably about as close to exhaustive as anyone gets - chocolate - I can say that it's not necessary. Even a relative novice will find that with a reasonably broad experience it becomes possible to interpolate the likely possibilities - and to make a fair subjective assessment that a given product is among the very best of its kind.

        Perhaps a more stimulating way to debate someone's contention as to "best" is to provide an example from your own experience which might have a better claim on "best". That has the additional benefit of providing still more information to the group who can then try the relative merits themselves :-)

        1. re: AlexRast

          I am sure cornetti will survive without me!

          I was only trying to communicate I don't personally care for them (in particular the sweet ones). I don't personally care for bistecca alla Fiorentina either. Truly just a matter of personal taste.

          However I totally disagree about using a phrase like "best in Italy" whether it be pastry or steak. I am not objecting to opinion regarding comparative quality or generalizations when it comes to food nor I am applying a legal or scientific standard. I am objecting to the reduction of eating a food to stupid lists and competitions. So I'll decline the offer to join the game. I don't find it stimulating. My opinion is that it is more lethal to culture than cellophane-wrapped cornetti (since so few people in the world ever eat cornetti but plenty have started believing in absurdly reductionist approaches to learning what is good to eat).

          Regarding the hamburger: When I want a good one I cook one. How hard is that? One of the saddest developments I have ever witnessed in popular culture is seeing people become accustomed to eating restaurant food and then talk about hamburgers as if they were complicated. The intellectual energy would be better spent learning to cook or reading a book.

          1. re: kmzed

            A difference in understanding maybe. Here I'm not using "best" in a way intended to encourage a simplistic understanding or mindless pursuit of an absolute.

            Talking about the "best" in food I think is useful and in fact in some ways vital - because if no comparative statements are made then no one is any the wiser about even the possibility of meaningful differences in quality. Where "best" becomes debased to "reduction of eating a food to stupid lists..." is when someone decides to treat evaluations as some sort of rank-order comparison with establishments having a specific place in the hierarchy, and when patrons go to an establishment in fulfillment of a "tick-list" mentality where the purpose is to be able to say you've had that particular experience. A similar mentality for instance occurs in mountaineering where for some the tick-list of 8000 m peaks or highest-graded rock climbs becomes an end in itself. But that doesn't to me, invalidate the worth of describing a particular route as the "best" or "hardest" or whatever. I agree that doing something just to say you've done it is an empty pursuit. But there's value in identifying, in this case, for instance, outstanding cornetti so that people who actually want to have a good one can find one.

            On the hamburger point, though, I think there's a very important thing to remember. Many people through no fault of their own don't have the time, or don't have the skills, or don't have the equipment, or don't have the access to the quality of raw materials, necessary to make a great hamburger (or any other food that you care to name). For them the only way to have a good one is by eating in a restaurant, and it cannot be assumed that they have private contacts who DO have the necessary skills, equipment, and materials. I don't think that such people should be denied even the possibility of a decent hamburger, or anything else - and that's a major reason why restaurants exist - to give people opportunities for good food that the couldn't avail themselves of privately. In the specific case of a cornetto, that requires technical skills and time that for practical purposes put it entirely outside the reach of almost everyone - except as a very rare exception. So again, I think it's valuable to identify really first-rate establishments.

            If some people choose to treat a review as a tick-list that seems to me to be their own problem to worry about, but again the possibility that someone might use recommendations in a different way from the way any of us might be inclined to use it should discourage us from making emphatic recommendations.

            1. re: AlexRast

              Oops! Critical mistake in the last sentence that I didn't see - and that totally changes the flavour of the reply: here's the correct version (edit in ALL CAPS for clarity):

              "...but again the possibility that someone might use recommendations in a different way from the way any of us might be inclined to use it SHOULDN'T discourage us from making emphatic recommendations."

      2. thanks, really interesting.
        I love good cornetti. For me the fragrance of them is one of the typical reminders I am in italy, but they seem to be more and more an industrial product, so its great to know somebody is keeping the faith!

        1. Rating cornetti in Italy is a little like rating tacos in the Boston area. You can compare them against each other but they really have little in common with the real thing.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Bugsey34

            Your comparison of rating cornetti in Italy with rating taco in Boston is interesting. Can you elaborate? And what do you consider the 'real thing'?

            1. re: Bugsey34

              can't cornetti be considered on their own merits, rather tnan being compared to French croissants, which I am assuming is your standard of comparison?

              1. re: jen kalb

                The OP is, in fact, rating cornetti against each other but I just don't even think cornetti are worth eating because I've had a real croissant. You could also compare different kinds of pane in cassetta from Esselunga but I don't think it's Chow-worthy.

                1. re: Bugsey34

                  Fair enough that you don't like cornetti and you prefer eating a croissant to a cornetto. That does make a croissant the 'real thing'; whatever 'the real thing' means. To the French, the croissant belongs to a class of pastries call viennoisserie. They did not invent it but make a version of the Kipferi, which probably originated in Austria. So does just about every country in Europe.
                  And what is wrong with the OP rating cornetti? It may not be 'Chow-worthy' to you but to him, it is worthy of a special trip to find good versions and report on his findings. Certainly when I am near that area, I'll search them out.
                  When it comes to certain food, there is a sense of place. When I am in Venice (very frequent), Rome or Naples, I never crave a croissant; it is always a cornetto for breakfast, frequently filled with pastry cream or jam/marmalade which I have never encountered in France. Same when I am in Portugal with its oversize, slightly sweet, bready shaped croissants. I love eating them; it is by no means the height of pastry art, but it reminds me where I am. Eric Kayser, the famous Parisian boulanger, has opened a branch in central Lisbon stocked with mostly French pastries including buttery croissants. I never had an urge to buy them there yet I buy them everyday when I am in Paris because our apartment is a 5 minute walk from his rue Monge shop.

            2. mannori is one of italy's top pastry chefs- he competes in the world cup.

              if i go all the way out to prato-- and get to the shop which is not easy for everyone-- i would get some of everything there!

              If he has his chocolate spread with olive oil and sea salt.

              his miniature cakes are to die for! worth the trip-- oh and don't forget -- he is a master chocolatier also! his ganache chocolates!!!!!

              1 Reply
              1. re: Diva

                Agreed. A lot worth going for; the chocolates are very nice indeed. I like some of his chocolate cakes very much indeed; the *sette veli* is not the only one (although it's very nice) (it should also be noted that it's not exactly the same as the one which won him the competition). Hot chocolate is another thing to get from him while there, at least at this time of year (probably overfacing in summertime though)

                It will be said for chocolate spread though there is an even better choice in Monsummano Terme: Slitti, with Gianera, probably the best chocolate spread in the world. Slitti has several other really excellent chocolate spreads as well. These can all be found in numerous places; the most central one to Florence is the Coronas caffe on Via dei Calzaiuoli.