A biscuit with history.
No such thing as a simple 'Amaretto', this little brown biscuit comes packed with a past, it's fought battles to be here.
I was going to title this post 'Amaretti' but there's no such thing.
Is it a liqueur, a biscuit, soft, hard, which?
There's history here (where isn't there in Italy?) and like most Italian delicacies, this biscuit comes with a recipe dating back centuries, a family name, a legend, a legal battle and a wish.
I'm a romantic, let's start with The Legend.
As legend goes, in 1719, star-struck couple Giuseppe and Osolina from the small village of Saronno own a baker's shop . They plan a commemorative 'bickie' to celebrate the Grand Cardinal's visit from Milan but find they only have apricot kernels, sugar and eggs (this sounds a lot like the Alpine Innkeeper who made canederli).
They fashion a light, airy biscuit from what they have in the pantry, wrapping two together in beautiful tissue paper for his Holiness. So enamoured is he, that he blesses the happy couple who marry to live happily ever after with their unchanged and very successful recipe.
Now, not one to crush a legend, but it must be said that some have found even earlier evidence in Venice during the 17th century, when Francesco Moriondo, pastry chef to the Court of Savoy, baked an Amaretto during the late Renaissance period. Whether his was apricot or almond and regardless whom you choose, there's something timeless about this simple biscuit with its complex past.
What is an Amaretto?
Amaro means bitter in Italian. This biscuit can be made with almonds or almond paste and has a distinctive 'almondy' bitterness balanced with sweet. Amaretti di Saronno are double-baked at high temperatures (some say to kill the cyanide in the kernels, although no mention is found of this) they're dry and crumble easily, in fact they're added to desserts like our tiramisu for this very reason, because they hold their shape until dissolving on your tongue. Small, simple and rounded, Amaretti di Saronno are popular throughout the country in all kinds of dishes or simply left out as a 'biscotto di credenza' meaning they last for weeks placed on 'a sideboard' for any peckish passerby.
Now here comes the confusion... since Amaretti biscuits have always been made by the Lazzaroni Family of Saronno, only they have the rights to produce them under the name 'Amaretti di Saronno' - Amaretti from Saronno. But in Italy many versions exist: from the town of Sassello in Liguria and Piemonte comes a soft macaroon-style biscuit also named Amaretto with apricot kernels, egg white, sugar and almonds, from Gallarate in Lombardy (like Saronno) comes a soft version too.
Then there are smaller Amarettini, others made with almonds and more recipes using chocolate and liqueur, in fact there's an Amaretti liqueur too, and where is it from? but Saronno as well! Guess its name?
Amaretto di Saronno.
(Note Amaretto, not Amaretti) but one biscuit is surely one 'Amaretto di Saronno'?
Hence the confusion.
Somehow the Italians seem unphased by any of this malarkey because one is a clearly a drink and one is clearly is biscuit.
I asked Francesco, "What comes to mind when I say Amaretto?"
He said, "biscotto."
Amaretto di Saronno Liqueur - now known as 'Disaronno'.
This well-known drink is made by the same original Lazzaroni family from Saronno, but they've branched out by now into very separate family groups. The liqueur also contains apricot kernels and has a similar distinctive bitter/sweet taste but no, it's not a biscuit.
Enjoyed after dinner with a dipping cantuccio or dare I say it Amaretto di Saronno biscuit, this gorgeous warming elixir is added to desserts to lend an almond flavour and is a staple in most Italian homes.
Amaretti di Sassello
Far west from Saronno in Lombardy, we find Sassello in Liguria and here the Amaretto biscuit is soft and chewy. Similarly made with apricot kernels, egg white and almonds, the quantity of almonds give these moreish biscuits a marzipan texture, very different to the Saronno sister.
The Lazzaroni Family Drama
There's no disputing the Lazzaroni created the cookie and then the drink (infused with the cookie) and thus own the rights to the original recipes, but as often happens with family businesses in Italy, a small dispute becomes a legal battle and this sadly was the case for the Lazzaronis.
It all went pear-shaped in 1984 when the Italian family sold the biscuit part of the business (named D. Lazzaroni) to an American company who then sold it on again.
Back in Italy, Paolo Lazzaroni (great-grandson to his original liqueur-creator namesake) is taking the family business to great heights, building a factory in Saronno and keeping with the family name 'Amaretto di Saronno'. This is all hunky-dory while P Lazzaroni makes the drink and D Lazzaroni makes the biscuit, until 2004 (according to US legal records) when Paolo begins to bake biscuits too. Now, you can't blame the guy - it's his family that truly started the whole thing, it's his great-nonna's recipe - you can imagine he feels entitled, but here the lines begin to blur (along with any internet records of what really happened) and who knows why they sold the blooming biscuit rights in the first place? Alas, the Lazzaroni family are sued because not only does he bake the biscuits, he then sells them to the Sates. You can picture the court room drama unfolding in true Italian/American fashion...
From here on it's rather messy, or is it swept under the carpet? Noted is the Italian family website who state they have nothing to do with D Lazzaroni. Then in Italy we've been calling Amaretto di Saronno (the drink) just 'Disaronno' for years and Amaretti di Saronno (the biscuits) are no longer made by Amaretti di Saronno but by Chiostro di Saronno - the Cloisters of Saronno. In this gorgeous 14th Franciscan church sit the original Amaretto recipes. Paolo and Luca Lazzaroni happily run the Italian company, baking panettone, cakes and all kinds of goodies (and exporting worldwide), selling their family's biscuit in its original tin, still wrapped with beautiful tissue paper in twos, just like Giuseppe and Osolina did for the Cardinal. In fact, if you visit the Cloisters in Saronno you can still see the iconic original boxes painted in wistful landscapes and women, Christmas snow and hunters riding through countryside scenes.
Many years after the biscuits were born, someone noticed their decorated wrappings would float gently up to the sky when lit. Who knows, if you make a wish and your paper glides to the ceiling, you may just be in luck.