As those who know Florence can probably attest if you want good pastry, or even a decent cornetto in the morning Florence itself can be something of a wasteland, but a short 20-minute train ride to the north will bring you to Prato where 2 pastry masters: Paolo Sacchetti and Luca Mannori duel it out for regional honours and, arguably, best pastry in Italy. It's well worth making the pilgrimage to either one.
I decided to try them in a head-to-head competition; being within 10 minutes' walk of one another it's not hard. In this case I focussed on the morning ritual cornetto, being at once the most basic and yet in some ways most technically demanding of the pastry arts, because there's nowhere to hide behind bad technique.
It should be said that both make excellent cakes as well; Sacchetti's are in a more traditional idiom; Mannori goes for a modern style. I might give a slight nod to Mannori for interest but in terms of the flavour in your mouth its an even toss.
The Mannori shop is the more stylish and sophisticated, not to mention larger, of the 2, and it has a large indoor seating area, which is nice if you come in late winter with a cool rain coming down lightly but insistently. Sacchetti's Nuovo Mondo is a real hole-in-the-wall, a tiny pastry shop squeezed into a narrow shopfront on a narrow street in central Prato - the sort of place that you'll pass by in an instant without even realising there was anything there. Indeed, the atmosphere of both seems to convey in style the same prevailing ethos as their owners - the one (Mannori) trendy and avant-garde, the other (Sacchetti) recreating the essence of tradition.
The basic test, the simple, unfilled cornetto, was what I made the reference point. Mannori's are light and spongy, softer perhaps than usual and certainly flakier. However I did think there was room for improvement, they don't quite have the utter etherealness that can be possible. Sacchetti's were closer to the reference, infinitely flaky and with a crisper, even lighter sfogliata, one that I shall have to test soon against my current champion, Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome.
On the other hand Mannori's cornetto alla crema is sublime; here it's the pastry cream that takes the starring role. Mannori is very generous with his inspired interpretation of the cream, which makes for a decadently messy experience and one of the ultimate expositions of the art. Sacchetti didn't have them on offer any of the times that I went so I decided to opt for one of his "regulars", the lemon millefoglie. A thick layer of lemon pastry cream between 2 sheets of pastry, it has a satisfying consistency and the pastry is about as good as you can get. A lot of butter helps - a lot more than most pasticcerie use - so that the pastry itself almost dissolves and hasn't a hint of dryness.
For this round, at least, then, Sacchetti just edges out Luca Mannori. But why limit yourself to one? As long as you're in the area, it's just as well to try both. The critical thing really is the excuse to get out of the pit of pastry mediocrity in Florence itself and into somewhere where people are making an effort.