If Rome had a personality, it would be the unassuming but delicious maritozzo: a brioche-like bun split in half and filled with an over-generous dose of sweet panna (whipped cream). And rather like the Romans themselves (who are stereotypically seen as abrupt city slickers), the maritozzo possesses a firm exterior while hiding an inner sweetness—one fluffy, creamy bite, and you’ll be hooked. There is no dainty way to eat a maritozzo, and everyone knows it. The cream will flow out and drip over your fingers and possibly down your wrist but do not reach for a spoon. When in Rome and all that.
The origin of maritozzo
The maritozzo (a slang tweak on the Italian word for husband, marito) is an old-school pastry with a history dating back centuries, though like many things you’ll find in the Eternal City, no one can seem to agree on its origins.
Life for the maritozzo began in ancient Rome as a practical, easily transportable source of food for workers out in the fields all day. Back then, maritozzi (the plural form of maritozzo) were larger (like a mini loaf) rather than today’s shape, which easily fits in the palm. The dough, made from flour, eggs, butter, and a pinch of salt and sugar, was often sweetened with honey and raisins. In the Middle Ages, the maritozzo became sweeter and took on a religious slant: It was the only treat allowed during Lent, and oil was used instead of butter. Pine nuts and candied oranges were added to this Lent recipe over the years.
Ask a Roman, and they’ll tell you there are only two kinds of maritozzo: the savory kind (the Lent recipe, also known as maritozzo quaresimale); and the plain, sweet dough version, which is packed with panna. Whichever you prefer, the hero is the dough itself rather than the filling. “The dough must have a soft and fragrant consistency. It must not be too fragile and light, so to contain, without issue, a rich filling of cream,” says Luca Rocconi, a Rome guide and historian. “You must be able to hold it in one hand without it crumbling. The panna must be very fresh, compact, and not liquid; sweet at the right point and slightly cooler than the sweet bun.”
A sweet proposal
One common story about the maritozzo is that men would present the bun (with a ring hidden inside) to their love, while a story told by others, including Valerio Fantinelli, food historian and head chef and owner of Flour and Fire, says the maritozzo was baked and gifted by women to their potential marito.
Fantinelli’s maritozzo memory, like many in this ancient city full of stories, centers around his grandmother. He says when she was a little girl, she would save money for a few days just to buy one. “My nonna had different stories about their origin,” says Fantinelli. “One of my favorite stories was the one of how they got their name: Nonna used to tell us that in some small towns, all the young ladies looking for a husband would make this sweet for the boy they liked, and he would marry the girl that made the best one.”
For decades, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, maritozzi sat on Roman bar counters, and locals ate them for breakfast alongside a creamy cappuccino. In the 1970s, the less extravagant (and less messy) cornetto, similar to a French croissant, became in vogue, and the maritozzo fell out of favor.
The modern maritozzo
Today, you won’t find maritozzi in every bar as you will the mass-produced cornetti. When you do, the pasticceria has made it fresh, in-house, and from the first bite, you won’t regret it (or the mess).
Today, the humble maritozzi are enjoying their second coming—with a twist. Neighborhood bars still serve up maritozzi con panna for breakfast, while at trendy restaurants, experimental chefs serve up maritozzi with creative, savory fillings, along with vegan and gluten-free varieties for lunch and dinner.
At Il Maritozzo Rosso there’s a dedicated maritozzo menu that includes over 30 different fillings, such as smoked salmon, meatballs, and stracciatella with anchovies. And there’s even a twist on dessert: Maritamisu, maritozzo soaked in coffee with tiramisu cream and cocoa.
While the maritozzo is very much a Roman pastry, some variations have popped up in other Italian cities. “Abruzzo and Le Marche have their own versions where they’re more pointed at the ends and have no pine nuts,” Rocconi says. “In Sicily and Puglia, there’s another version, and instead of a bun, it’s in the shape of a braid and always comes with whipped cream but not pine nuts and raisins.”
Like the Trevi fountain, the Colosseum, and St Peter’s, the maritozzo has stood the test of time; an edible piece of history you can eat and savor.
Where to eat maritozzo
Edoardo Fraioli heads the only dedicated kitchen in Rome to the savory maritozzo. He opened the Trastevere hole-in-the-wall bistro in 2016 (counter service and takeaway), with the Prati restaurant following. Both outlets serve up Fraioli’s savory creations, but you can always opt for the classic maritozzo with panna.
The Regoli family has been baking cakes, tarts, and of course, maritozzi since 1916. You won’t find fancy maritozzi here; owner Carlo Regoli uses the 100-year-old Lent recipe.
Feel like a midnight (maritozzo) snack? This is the place to come – young and old all gather for their fix. Emilio Agostini doesn’t mess with tradition (or his father Antonio’s recipe): a soft, sweet dough cut down the middle and filled with panna. Buns are cut and filled with panna as they’re ordered and are fresh as they come.
Celebrated pastry chef Rodrigo Bernoni makes maritozzo following the Lent recipe as well as cannoli and panettone–if you still have a couple of must-eats to tick off before leaving Italy, this is the place to eat them. The coffee is good, the queues are long, and the maritozzi are worth the hype.