When you think of Italian cuisine, your thoughts likely flood with an array of fresh ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic, basil, mushrooms, and capers. There are so many incredible dishes – risotto, gnocchi, lasagna, ravioli – the list goes on and on.
While we tend to think of indulgent lunches and savory dinners, Italian cuisine also has a long rich tradition of desserts. Many of these Italian desserts are based on recipes that are hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of years old.
Following along the lines of most Italian cuisine, Italian desserts reflect the many different regions of Italy and their local influences. While some desserts are enjoyed throughout Italy, others are regional and local favorites.
No matter where the desserts originate, Italian cakes, tarts, and pastries have made their way into bakeries, patisseries, and cafes throughout Europe and America. Italian desserts range from the simple to the savory to the bittersweet and even reach the heights of sheer decadence and indulgence.
How Do Italians View Italian Desserts?
Italian views on dessert vary from American tastes and practices. The end of an Italian meal can include a dessert, but it typically consists of fresh fruit, a simple cake, bite-size tarts, or a biscotti.
This is not to say that Italians do not imbibe in more decadent Italian desserts. They absolutely do. But these are reserved for special occasions, celebrations, milestones, and holidays like Christmas or Easter.
Italian-American Influences on Traditional Italian Desserts
Over four million Italian immigrants reached the shores of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many passed through the gates of Ellis Island before making their last journey via railway or on foot to American cities like New York, Boston, and Newark.
Once settled, these Italian immigrants combined their traditional Italian cuisine and desserts with new ingredients found in America. Other ingredients, like sugar, were now more readily available resulting in sweeter desserts with less savory variations.
Traditional ingredients found in Italy, but not readily available in America, were substituted with other accessible options. For example, recipes calling for mascarpone were replaced by ricotta cheese, a typical ingredient found in a cannoli.
Italian-American immigrants and their descendants honored traditional desserts, but they also created whole new dishes that are considered Italian-American but do not have an Italian origin.
A perfect example is the rainbow cookie. An Italian-American dessert staple, these almond-paste cookies are filled with a fruit jam and covered in chocolate. They were created by Italian immigrants in honor of the white, red, and green of the Italian flag.
Now on to the important part – the Italian desserts.
Our Guide to Italian Desserts
Affogato: Translates to drowned, these are found in Florence. Consists of a scoop of vanilla or hazelnut gelato with a shot of fresh espresso poured over the top.
Bocconotti: The name means one bite, indicative of its small stature. A Christmas favorite found in the area of Abruzzo. This small pastry tart can be filled with chocolate, cream, or other fillings like black grapes or black cherries.
Bonet: Traditional dessert, meaning hat, found in the Piedmont area. Typically made with amaretti, eggs, sugar, cocoa, and rum or cognac. May be topped with amaretto biscuits or hazelnuts.
Budino di Riso: Found in Tuscany, this dessert translates to tart with rice pudding. The dessert is often flavored with lemon zest or sometimes Sambuca, an anise-flavored Italian liqueur.
Cassata: A famous dessert of Sicily and an Easter favorite. This liqueur-soaked sponge cake is layered with sweetened ricotta and fruit preserves. It is then decorated with marzipan and topped with candied fruits.
Crostata: Translates to tart in English. This pastry base is filled with jam, custard, chocolate, or fresh fruit like apricot, plum, and blueberry. Thin strips of crisscrossed pastry are placed on top.
Delizia al limone: This lemon delight is found in the Campania region. It contains sponge cake filled with lemon cream and soaked in limoncello. The dessert is then covered in lemon icing of whipped cream.
Gelato: Known as Italian ice cream, but very different from its American cousin. Dating back to the 1500s in Florence, gelato has more milk than cream resulting in a lower fat content.
Gianduiotto: Known as the king of Italian chocolates and found in the city of Turin. This artisan chocolate contains hazelnuts, sugar, and cocoa. Often covered in chocolate flakes and a sprinkling of roasted hazelnuts.
Granita: Another Sicilian treat. This dairy-free frozen dessert can be flavored with lemon, strawberry, chocolate, coffee, or numerous other fruity flavors. It is slowly frozen and continuously stirred to give it a consistency that falls somewhere between gelato and sorbet.
Meringata: Translates to meringue cake. The main ingredients are whipped cream and meringue. Many people liken it to an ice cream cake.
Millefoglie: This dessert of a thousand layers consists of puff pastry and homemade custard. It is the Italian version of the French mille-feuille.
Pandoro: The name comes from the term pan d’oro or golden bread—a nod to its bright yellow color. This Christmas specialty originated in Verona. It has a star, or sometimes Christmas tree, shape. The cake is not filled and is usually treated simply with powdered sugar.
Panforte: This traditional strong bread originated in Siena. It has a spicy flavor and contains fruits and nuts. Very similar to a holiday fruitcake in America.
Panettone: The name is derived from the word panetto which refers to a small loaf cake. This sweet bread made at Christmas time is found in the Lombardy region. The leavened dough has candied fruits and raisins added to it.
Panna Cotta: This cooked cream originates from Piedmont. A silky-smooth creamy pudding, panna cotta is served with an array of flavored sauces like chocolate or caramel.
Pasticciotto: Originating from Salento, this miniature or small pie is filled with egg custard. In some areas, it is served with sour cherries.
Pastiera: An Easter tradition found in Naples, pastiera is made of a pastry shell and filled with a mixture of berries, pastry cream, and ricotta. The dessert has hints of candied orange peel and orange blossom water and is dusted with cinnamon powder.
Salame di Cioccolato: Translates to chocolate salami. Contains dark chocolate, broken-up cookies, nuts, and butter. When finished, it is dusted with powdered sugar.
Sbrisolona: This crumbly and crunchy tart originated in Mantua. These Italian desserts contain corn flour, chopped hazelnuts, and shortening.
Schiacciata all’Uva: Schiacciata means squashed or flattened bread popularly known outside of Italy as focaccia. In this dessert originating in Florence, two layers of flattened bread are layered with red grapes with more grapes dotted on top.
Seadas: Found in Sardinia, these deep-fried semolina dumplings are filled with fresh pecorino cheese and lemon zest and then gently sprinkled with sugar.
Semifreddo: A half-cold or half-frozen dessert with a consistency found between a mousse and an ice cream. Semifreddo, however, is not churned like ice cream.
Tartufo: Italian for truffle, this chocolate-covered bombe features two ice cream flavors with a syrupy and fruity center. This no-bake dessert is found in the Calabria region.
Tiramisu: One of the best well-known and popular Italian desserts with origins in Veneto. Layers of biscuits are soaked in coffee and Marsala wine and then covered with a mascarpone-based cream. The dessert is complete with a sprinkling of chocolate powder.
Torrone: This nougat confection dates to Roman times and is believed to have originated in Cremona. The dessert is shaped into rectangular logs and cut into thin slices.
Zabaglione: Translating to eggnog, this traditional custard contains Marsala wine and is typically accompanied by flavored sauces, fresh fruits, or nuts.
Zuppa Inglese: Literally translates to English soup. Mostly found in central Italy, it contains several layers of sponge cake dipped in a bowl of an herbal liqueur called Alchermes. It is then sandwiched between a lemon-scented egg custard, fruit compote, or chocolate cream.
Curated Selection of Tortas
Torta in Italian desserts refers to a cake or a pie and can be either sweet, bittersweet, or savory. Here is a curated selection of some of the more well-known Italian tortas.
- Torta Barozzi: Dark chocolate cake featuring roasted peanuts or almonds and rum. The Italian version of a brownie.
- Torta Caprese: A flourless dark bittersweet chocolate cake with almond or hazelnut flour.
- Torta della Nonna: Known as grandmother’s cake with a ricotta or pastry cream filling. Often topped with pine nuts or almonds.
- Torta Ricotta e Visciole: Translates to ricotta and sour cherries cake – a Roman Jewish classic.
- Torta Sbrisolona: The name comes from the word brìsa which means crumb. This dry and crunchy cake can be bathed in or accompanied by grappa.
Do Not Forget These Amazing Italian Pastries
A pastry is a baked dessert that is made with flour dough, water, and shortening. They include numerous variations that can be savory, sweet, or a well-balanced mix of both flavor profiles. Pastries are a vital component of Italian desserts.
Baba: This slightly sweet pastry has its origins in Poland in the 1700s with links to Naples. The dough is twice raised and then cooked in a ring-shaped mold. Raisins and spices are incorporated and the dessert is then dipped in rum and a citrusy syrup.
Baci di Dama: Translated to the kisses of ladies. This dark chocolate pastry originates in the Piedmont area. Two small spheres of pastry, incorporating hazelnuts or almonds, are joined together in a sweet kiss with a thin layer of chocolate.
Bigne di San Giuseppe: These round balls of pastry dough are deep-fried. Found in Rome, Bigne di San Giuseppe is prepared in March in honor of Father’s Day. Filled with a creamy filling, they are coated in powdered sugar.
Cannoli: A well-known and widely available Sicilian dessert. The scorcia, shaped like a tube, are filled with ricotta cheese and sometimes chocolate chips. The finished pastry is sprinkled with powdered sugar. There are numerous varieties that can include decorations of candied fruits or pistachios on the ends.
Cannoncino: Shaped like a horn, these cream-filled pastries can be flavored with chocolate, pistachio, or even sweet wine.
Cartellata: A Christmas staple in Puglia, cartellata is made from curly ribbons of dough. Derived from the word Carta, meaning paper, the pastry is soaked in must–squeezed grape juice that will eventually be fermented and turned into wine.
Chiacchiere: This pastry fritter is a staple of Italian carnivals. The dough is cut into thin, rectangular sheets that are twisted to look like ribbons. They are then deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar or drizzled with chocolate. Chiacchiere can contain alcohol that takes on regional varieties.
Cornetto: The cornetto is reminiscent of the French croissant. It can be filled with chocolate cream, custard, or any number of fruit jams.
Fiocco di Neve: This airy brioche pastry, originating in Naples, is filled with cream, and lightly dusted with confectioner’s sugar. The name originates from the pastry’s snowflake shape.
Maritozzo: Derived from the Italian word for husband, marito, these sweet sandwiches are split in half and filled with custard or whipped cream. They are often glazed with sweet syrup.
Pignolata: Fried dough balls dipped in honey and resembling a big pine nut.
Pizzelle: Like a waffle batter, these light and sweet wafers may contain anise – an unmistakable licorice-flavored spice.
Sfinci: These Sicilian fried pastry puffs are filled with ricotta or cream filling. They are one of many sweet treats served in honor of St. Joseph’s Day.
Sfogliatelle: Originating in Naples, these lobster tail-shaped pastries contain a filling of mixed ricotta cheese, semolina, sugar, eggs, and a variety of candied citrus.
Torta Caprese: A pastry from Capri, this Italian classic is flour free. Instead, it is made of almonds, chocolate, eggs, butter, and sugar.
Zeppole: These amazing fried dough balls are known throughout the world and date back to ancient Rome. A headliner of Italian street fare, zeppoles can be treated simply with a dusting of powdered sugar or served with a variety of chocolate or fruit sauces.
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