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La Bella Vita: Unexpected Italian food customs and the history of the cornetto

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
La Bella Vita: Unexpected Italian food customs and the history of the cornetto
A custard cream-filled Italian cornetto. Photo by Filippo Ghiglioni on Unsplash

From the real story of Italy's classic breakfast pastry to the food customs you'll only know about if you live in Italy, our weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.


La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This newsletter is published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox: go to newsletter preferences in 'My Account' or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

I don't know about you, but there were a few things about Italian food that surprised me when I first moved here (and I don't mean the fact that there's no cream in carbonara.)

I spent my first two years in Italy in a small town in Tuscany, where all of my glossy magazine-inspired notions of Tuscan cuisine were quickly shattered - and replaced with a better appreciation of what the term “rustic” actually means.

I'd order what I thought would be a salad, and get a heap of unpeeled vegetables so fresh they still had dirt clinging to them. I questioned my Italian comprehension when waiters rattled off the daily specials: fried brains, liver, tripe, cow's stomach.

And don't get me started on the unsalted bread served everywhere.

This is the famous Tuscan cuisine? I thought to myself semi-regularly. At the risk of provoking controversy, I'll admit I was disappointed.

I soon got used to it. Now I love pappardelle al cinghiale (thick pasta ribbons in wild boar ragù) with the same strong vino sfuso (cask wine) that I once described as rocket fuel. Although I'll pass on the lampredotto (that’s the fourth and final stomach of a cow) for now.

Wherever you go in Italy you’ll find local specialities and curiosities of the sort that usually aren’t featured in the pages of lifestyle magazines or Italian cookbooks aimed at non-Italians, and which don’t figure in our collective imagination when we think of Italian cuisine.


This week, we put together a list of just a few of the curious food customs you probably won't know about unless you spend a lot of time in Italy - and please leave a comment below this article to tell us about any others you've come across.

Offal and midnight pastries: Six surprising Italian food customs

Sagra in Italy


And, as popular as the cornetto (or brioche, if you're up north) is in Italy, you won't find anyone who claims the country’s favourite breakfast pastry is an entirely Italian invention.

But what may come as a surprise, given the croissant's strong associations with France, is that it didn't originate there either, but in Austria. 

Although there is debate over the origin story, the crescent-shaped pastry can be traced back as far back as the 12th century and it’s thought to be more like a cousin of the croissant than a direct descendant. 


So next time you’re enjoying a cornetto with Italian friends at the bar-pasticceria, you’ll be able to impress them with your historical knowledge:

Kipferl: Explaining the Austrian (not French) roots of Italy's cornetto

It's still warm and decidedly summery in Italy at the moment, but I'm already looking forward to autumn. It's my favourite time of year for several reasons, not least the sagre - traditional, food-centred festivals held in villages all over the country, usually showcasing one particular local delicacy: there are festivals focused on everything from grapes and walnuts to porcini mushrooms, truffles, and... frogs.

We've got a list of some of the best sagre happening around Italy in the coming weeks if you're looking for some inspiration for a weekend trip:

The best Italian food festivals to visit in September

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Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you'd like to see us write more about? Please email me at [email protected].


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