It has become one of my fundamental beliefs that you cannot find croissants in Italy. There are things that look like croissants, usually called brioche or cornetti, served up and down the country for breakfast in bars, but buy one and you will soon discover the difference between these sweetmeats and the traditional salt-and-butter French classics. And by croissant, I mean the full-fat, full-French version.
Italian brioche are sweet, with sugar in the pastry and usually a glaze of apricot jam on top. To satisfy the Italian sweet tooth they often come with crema pasticcera or apricot jam inside: to have a plain one you need to ask for an empty one, or una vuota. French croissants are slightly salty and made with lashings of fresh butter which means that they melt in your mouth and don’t stick to the roof of it. Having spent two years living in Paris, for me the Italian ones just don’t cut the butter and croissants are one of the very few things I miss.
My quest for an Italian croissant began years ago when I first started making regular trips to the country while house hunting. A croissant would have been the perfect accompaniment to the sublime (and cheap) Italian coffee as opposed to the hot (expensive) mess called coffee in France. What irony that you can have one half of the equation in each country but never both together.
‘Hunt the croissant’ is a game I have played in Rome, Milan, Florence, Siena, Perugia, Turin, Bologna, and countless smaller towns crowded onto the narrow peninsula. In Naples, I discovered replacements such as the local rum babas and sfogliatelle the latter made with salty pastry showing the historical French influence on the city. But that French influence doesn’t extend as far as a salty croissant.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Venice recently—something you’ll be reading about more soon—and the other morning I went for coffee in a small bar in the Campo de la Bragora, just off the beaten track in Castello, the eastern part of the city. The bar itself was tiny but trendy. Just enough room to squeeze some stools in front of the bar behind which were two New-York style tattooed barman in black t-shirts. Outside the bar there are two barrels which serve as tables for the clientele to spill out into the square.
I casually ordered a coffee and brioche, expecting great things from the drink but not from the food. As I bit into the brioche, I was struck by the silky texture which unexpectedly melted away on my tongue: butter. Before I knew it, the croissant had rudely disappeared and I was left with no choice to order a second one. Well, I needed to check.
Here it was. In the city where Indiana Jones and his father had failed, I had discovered the Holy Grail. A real croissant.
The bar, Baronda Café 3725, has since become one of my favourite haunts. Even in high season, the Campo de la Bragora is not too busy, even though it’s a five-minute walk from the Piazza di San Marco. And just look at what awaits you outside.