That’s a tricky one. There are a couple of origin stories, one a myth and the other a probable myth. The first one goes like this: once upon a time in the early 1700’s, in the northern Italian town of Saronno, there lived a pair of newlyweds. These two loved to bake and make sweets, so when they heard that the Catholic Cardinal from the nearby city of Milan was preparing to visit, the wanted to make something special. They gathered the meager ingredients they had: almonds, sugar, egg whites and apricot kernels, and using a mysterious technique that remains a secret to this day, prepared a batch of small cookies in the Cardinal’s honor. Tasting them, the Cardinal was so delighted that he blessed their marriage — and their cookies — wishing them a long and prosperous marriage. Today of course that secret is owned by the D. Lazzaroni Company who makes the classic Amaretti di Saronno. No surprise that they are the people largely responsible for propagating this myth.
Food lore is packed with stories like this, in which peasants throw together unlikely concoctions to please a visiting priest, cardinal, pope or member of the royalty. I think of them as a sort of Renaissance advertising. “Endorsed by popes for over 200 years!” None of them are true, but to this day people love to repeat them. Goes to show that the form has natural appeal.
The other origin story is simpler. It holds that amaretti were invented in the middle 1600’s by a pastry chef by the name of Francesco Moriondo who worked for the House of Savoy (Savoy being a mountainous region that is now located in the extreme southeast of France). How true is that legend? It probably isn’t, but then again there’s no way to know for sure.
What is known for sure is that cookies of this type (macaroons) have been around in Italy (or at least what is now Italy) for some 700 years. Maccarone means a baked mixture of egg whites, honey (or sugar) and nuts. Amaretti are certainly that, though exactly when and by whom almond maccarone were combined with ground apricot pits to create these “little bitter things” will remain a mystery.