There aren't many pastries you can turn to after a church visit and a night out clubbing, but that's the power of maritozzi for you. Shaped like a football, made of brioche and topped with whipped cream, this Italian sweet can be eaten at all hours.
Flavio Carnevale has had a lifetime of experiences with maritozzi. It's currently a bestseller at his Marta Roman Bakery in Sydney's Rushcutters Bay, but he wasn't so impressed with it when he first tried the pastry in his Italian homeland as a child.
Maritozzi is a specialty of Rome, a city he's always had a connection to. His family would regularly visit his great-aunt who lived in the Italian capital – even though it took more than four hours to get there from Carnevale's childhood home in Rapone, 300 kilometres south of the city. "We used to get up at 4am in the morning to get the bus and the bus would go straight to Rome," he says.
He still remembers the Sunday lunch in Rome when his great aunty offered him some maritozzi. "That was the first time I had it."
As a 12-year-old, he was underwhelmed. A brioche bun with whipped cream on top – and that's all? A single maritozzo wasn't going to cut it for him.
"I used to like a different kind of dessert, like cannoli or sfogliatelle, or something with a lot more inside of it," he says. Maritozzi seemed lacking, by comparison. In fact, Carnevale thought his great-aunt had been ripped off, given the pastry's stripped-back simplicity, and laughs at the memory.
"Now that I'm older, I'm happy with just the whipped cream and the bun," he says. "I actually like them more now than when I was a kid."
Moving to the birthplace of maritozzi helped convert him to the pastry.
"Now that I have lived in Rome, I actually understand that this is a traditional Sunday thing to do. After mass, you go to buy maritozzi for dessert after lunch. Back then I didn't think much of it. Now it's a different story."
Carnevale moved to Rome when he was a teenager so he could study at university. He also worked at a baker near St Peter's Square in the Vatican. "Next to it was a pastry shop and [the owner there] always had maritozzi," he says. Carnevale's boss at the bakery would trade their menu for sweets next door. "He'd bring over bread he made or pizza, and he'd come back with maritozzi."
His time in the Italian capital has greatly inspired Carnevale's Marta Roman Bakery, which he started in response to the first COVID-19 lockdown last year – transforming his Marta trattoria into a market full of maritozzi and other regional specialties. It brings back memories of his old bakery job, where he'd ride his bike to the Vatican and deliver bread to priests and nuns for their breakfast. These weren't any old loaves either, but Roman specialties. There was Lariano (named after the nearby town where the bread's unique wheat is grown) and ossi, the Roman version of ciabatta. "Ossi in Italian means bones," he says. "The bakers are covered in flour, so the breadstick looks like a bone. So the Romans call it ossi."
Carnevale's time in Rome wasn't all about devout duties and keeping priests and nuns well-fed. Like any young man, he liked to hit the night clubs. And if Australians enjoy getting a kebab after a big night out, he says the equivalent in Rome would be getting pastries like maritozzi and croissants – straight from bakers who'd been producing them all night.
"Knock on the door and they open it, and you buy them straight as they are making it for the day's production. That was the fun of it," he says. There was an actual post-clubbing trail, a recommended route of Roman bakeries to visit. "You can see everyone following this path: now that you've got your maritozzi, you go to this place; now you've got your croissants, go to this place."
There were also stand-up bars, where you'd have a latte macchiato with your post-clubbing breakfast. "You're a little hungover, so the milk helps you to sober up."
Carnevale says maritozzi at this time of day can be considered breakfast, even if you haven't gone to bed yet.
"It's 6 in the morning, so it's breakfast," he says. "If you go with an Italian to Rome and you party … At 6am, you go for breakfast, then you go to sleep."
"[That] was the dessert that they used to offer to their [beloved], when the guy wanted to ask for your hand. Italians, it's all about food!"
Maritozzi has been part of other Italian traditions, too. In the 18th century, it's believed that men would offer these pastries as a marriage proposal. "Yes, that is absolutely true," he says. "[That] was the dessert that they used to offer to their [beloved], when the guy wanted to ask for your hand. Italians, it's all about food!"
It's been pointed out that maritozzo (the singular word for the pastry) sounds like the word husband in Italian, and is used as a pet name for one. This is what inspired Giorgia McAllister Forte to make the Roman sweets at her Melbourne bakery, Monforte Viennoiserie, which is named after a hamlet in the Lazio region where her maternal family is from.
McAllister Forte says, "We ran them for Valentine's Day because of the romantic connotations of it."
The chef is aware of the other rituals associated with maritozzi, too.
"They were traditionally only made during Lent, which has changed now; it was with things like raisins, orange peel, pine nuts and made with olive oil, rather than butter." In fact, the earliest version of the pastry comes from the Middle Ages, and it's believed it was the only sweet that you were permitted to eat during Lent.
Luckily, that restriction no longer exists and the chef has a strong memory of her first maritozzo in Rome, about five years ago.
"It was super soft and pillowy," she says. "I'm not one for super sweet pastries and it was just the appropriate balance between a dessert and a breakfast treat."
At Monforte Viennoiserie, she's sold the original kind, as well as maritozzi with lemon folded through the whipped cream and dough, so there's a light citrus flavour. A whisky company recently requested a custom creation to go with its booze. "So I did a chocolate and ginger version, with baked strawberry gum through the dough," she says. "I got a little rogue with the flavours, but it was fun."
"I got a little rogue with the flavours, but it was fun."
This ever-growing creativity with maritozzi reflects their evolution. Since Carnevale's clubbing days many decades ago – when the pastries were available in the classic form and perhaps filled with custard or Nutella – they've since gone through a big makeover. He recalls visiting maritozzeria with 20 kinds of flavours during his most recent travels to Rome.
Only a few years ago, cookbook author Emiko Davies lamented how hard it was to find this specialty in the Italian capital – and how its heyday as a breakfast favourite was more than half a century ago.
Today, it's having a moment and becoming a big food trend in Japan. Carnevale credits this to a Japanese TV show featuring it onscreen and sparking blockbuster interest in the pastry. While you might find maritozzi at a handful of Italian eateries in Australia (like on Casa Mia Osteria's lockdown menu in Sydney, or Melbourne's Via Porta, in coffee or strawberry and cream editions), in Japan, they're widely available at 7-Eleven convenience stores. The brand's fresh-baked orange peel and blueberry maritozzi has filled shelves in Tokyo as well as the surrounding Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba regions, since June.
When Japanese shopping chain Kaldi Coffee Farm launched its frozen range last November, more than 300,000 maritozzo portions ended up in shopping baskets in just five months. Head to the country's Dean & Deluca outlets and you can score maritozzi flavoured with sweet and sour apricot jam, strawberries and cream, Muscat grapes or banana and cocoa.
In Japan, you might also see maritozzi shaped like cute animals or studded with sculptural additions of fruit and nuts. "That's the fun thing about baking, getting the chance to experiment," says McAllister Forte. "I think the maritozzi is a pretty good base for that."
The chef is contemplating the next maritozzi special she'll put on her menu, whereas at Marta Roman Bakery, the pastries are on offer daily since it opened last year. They still sell out so quickly that Carnevale can't believe it – even though it keeps happening, month after month.
While his version contains orange zest and is deeply Italian in origin, he believes the Roman specialty's similarities with a classic Australian cream bun is what inspires such a wild response to maritozzi here – where people buy five serves at a time when visiting his eatery.
"I think it has something to do with the childhoods in Australia," Carnevale says. "People associate it with what they had when they were younger."
McAllister Forte agrees. "It's something to really enjoy in the moment. It's more comforting than anything. I think that's what people are looking for these days – it's not stuff that's piled high with extra buttercreams, sprinkles and crumbs," she says. "They just want something that reminds them of their childhood a bit."