Professional bakeries began appearing in Italy around the 2nd century BC. Schools were put in place to teach technique to aspiring bakers. While Italian desserts today feature many unique ingredients, desserts in earlier times were very plain. Sugar wasn’t introduced until the Middle Ages and chocolate came to Italy in the 16th century.
Different desserts were born for different reasons in Italy. Some dry cookie-like desserts were thought to be made for sailors who needed long lasting food items to take on their voyages. Other more elaborate desserts were created to commemorate important historic events or holidays in Italy. Many of these recipes have been passed down through families for generations. Great care is taken to preserve their traditional characteristics.
Across Italy, regional variations to desserts can be found. From biscotti and amaretti, to the elaborate creations such as tiramisù, pandoro, and panettone, the Italians are in no shortage for confectionary creativity. Italian desserts, candy, and chocolate are in a class of their own.
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Types of Desserts
Amaretti – These small cookies made from sugar, flour, eggs, and Amaretto (replacing the original almond ingredient) have a unique history. Legend has it; a baker and his fiancée gathered all of the ingredients and developed a special gift for the visiting Cardinal of Milan in the 1700s. It was a tradition to provide sweets for the Cardinal and this time was no exception. The amaretti cookies pleased the Cardinal and he soon became a regular to their bakery. The tops of amaretti are sprinkled with crystalline sugar.
Aranci in Salsa di Marsala – This is a light and colorful Italian dessert combining fresh oranges, crushed Amaretti cookies, honey, mint sprigs, and Marsala wine. The oranges are peeled and separated at the top but left joined on the bottom so they can be opened up like flowers. A warm blend of honey and Marsala wine is poured over the orange flower. Finally, crushed Amaretti cookies and mint sprigs are used to garnish the finished creation.
Bigné di San Giuseppe – Light, puffy pastries from Rome that are typically baked in the weeks prior to St. Joseph’s day, March 19. These pastries are deep fried and stuffed with cream. A final topping of powdered sugar is applied before the pastry is complete.
Biscotti – Small, dry, crumbly sweet pastries that are twice-baked in the oven to remove moisture are known to Italians as biscotti. These cookie-like pastries were particularly popular among sailors due to their long shelf-lives. Biscotti often make use of fruits and nuts as aids to their flavor. Italians love to dip their biscotti in wine; flavoring and softening the cookie at the same time.
Biscotti dei Fantasmi – A relatively recent Italian creation revolving around the American holiday of Halloween. Biscotti dei Fantasmi are known for their ginger flavor and ghost-like shape.
Brutti ma Buoni – A traditional Tuscan cookie, roughly translating to “ugly but good”. The cookies aren’t pretty but are highly regarded for their delicious flavor. Almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, amaretto, oranges, and more can be found in a Brutti ma Buoni recipe.
Canestrelli – These are doughnut-like desserts originally from the Monferrato area. The desserts have a decorated edge, in shortbread or almond paste. Canestrelli are covered in powdered sugar upon coming out of the oven.
Cannoli – Powdered sugar and ricotta cheese or mascarpone fill these fried pastry-dough tubes from Sicily. The filling is usually blended with chocolate, vanilla, rosewater, pistachio, or Marsala wine for flavoring. Cannoli can also be served completely dipped in chocolate.
Cantuccini – Oil, anise and almonds fill these sweet, twice-baked Italian biscuits from the town of Prato, near Florence. Slices are cut from the loaf and then baked once again to harden them. Cantuccini are often dipped in wine, coffee or any other after dinner beverage for softening.
Cassata – This Sicilian dessert makes use of fruit juices or liqueur which are soaked into a moist sponge cake. Next, cassata is layered with candied peel, ricotta cheese, and a cannoli-like filling of chocolate or vanilla. Traditionally, cassata is then covered in marzipan and pastel-green icing. Candied fruits are placed on top of the finished cassata. Cassata can have a summertime variation, substituting refreshing gelato for the ricotta filling.
Cavallucci – These rich Christmas pastries are flavored with anise, and known for their chewy texture. Tuscan honey, coriander, candied fruits, almonds and flour make up the list of ingredients for Cavallucci. The name most likely originated in 16th century Siena, where the pastries were served to stable-workers by rich aristocrats. Cavallucci literally means “little horses”.
Cenci alla Fiorentina – A fried Tuscan pastry known for a delicious lemon flavor. The recipe is traditionally very basic and uses no nuts or chocolate. Oranges may be substituted for the lemon flavoring. The dough is tied into “love knots” before frying. Upon finish, Cenci alla Fiorentina are sprinkled lightly with confectioner’s sugar.
Cioccolatini – Italian assorted chocolate are in a class of-their-own. Baci, Italy’s most popular chocolate candy is a mixture of crushed hazelnuts and chocolate. Boeri is another popular chocolate candy in Italy; it consists of a brandied cherry inside rich, dark chocolate. Cioccolatini range in size, shape, texture, color and filling. Italians are free to use their culinary creativity in the world of cioccolatini.
Colomba – Flour, sugar, egg yolk, milk, butter, almonds and orange peel combine to create this Italian dove-shaped cake. Legend tells that the Milanesi witnessed three doves fly from a church during their struggle against the Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano. They believed it was this event that sparked their victory over the Barbarossa. The Milanesi celebrated throughout the years by eating the Colomba cake, with its delicate texture and golden crust.
Confetti – The traditional candy of Italian family celebrations. Confetti are candy-coated almonds; the shell comes from a sugar-syrup. The color of the confetti is very significant. Families will give white confetti for weddings, red for graduations, pink and blue for births, and many other variations. Abruzzo and Campania produce the majority of Italy’s confetti.
Crostata – A pie-like Italian dessert traditionally filled with items like cherry, apricot, berry, and peach jams, crema pasticciera, fresh fruit, or a blended ricotta and cocoa or sugar filling. Crostata typically has a rough appearance, and is not perfectly circular.
Frappe – This Carnevale tradition uses the same dough as cannoli. The difference is, the dough is cut into strips and tied into knots much like Cenci alla Fiorentina. The strips are fried and lightly topped with confectioner’s sugar.
Génoise – Named after Genoa, this sponge cake is known for its dry texture. Because of this, the cake is commonly soaked in liqueurs. Butter-cream frosting is a very common addition. Although being fairly lean, Génoise is made with whole eggs.
Gianduiotti – This is Italian chocolate of truly elite status. Gianduiotti, a mixture of milk, sugar, cocoa and Piedmontese hazelnuts, was hailed as the world’s finest chocolate at the 1865 Carnival of Turin. In fact, the chocolate was held in such high regard that it was given the honor of being named after the Masque of Turin; Gianduja.
Krumiri – Piedmontese cookie sticks made from flour, butter and honey. Krumiri are striped and somewhat curved.
Liquirizia – Italian licorice is produced in strands, drops, confetti, and many other varieties. This candy is known to have some fantastic health benefits including soothing sore throats, reducing coughing, hoarseness, and helping to cure ulcers.
Marron Glacé – Cook Italian chestnuts in sugar syrup and reap the rewards. Marron Glacé are soft, candied chestnuts used primarily for gift giving due to their low production.
Nociata – This is a walnut and honey dessert from the Lazio region of Italy. Around Christmastime each year, one will most likely find this sticky, cinnamon-flavored dessert throughout Rome. The finished product is served in tiny loaves.
Ossa dei Morti Biscotti – These “bones of dead men” are traditionally served on All Souls Day. Italians are known to have picnics near the graves of loved ones on this day in a celebration of life, not death. Ossa dei Morti Biscotti are small, bone shaped cookies making use of cinnamon, clove, lemon, vanilla, almond, and many other flavors.
Pan di Spagna – An Italian sponge cake known for its vast array of uses. Pan di Spagna is the basis for many Italian desserts including layer cakes, roll cakes, and more. Many enjoy Pan di Spagna alone for its simple, delicious flavor and spongy texture.
Pandoro – One of the two Italian sweet yeast breads served mainly on Christmas day. This frustum-shaped bread with an 8-pointed star is usually coated in vanilla icing to represent snow. In ancient times, breads like Pandoro would be reserved for royalty, but everyone may enjoy them today. Domenico Melegatti, resident of Verona, attained a patent for producing Pandoro in 1894.
Panettone – Native to Milan, Panettone is one of the two Italian sweet yeast breads served mainly on Christmas day. Acidic dough used to make Panettone is cured before being shaped into a cupola which extends from a cylindrical base. Raisins, candied orange, citron, and lemon zest are added to the bread for flavoring. Regional variations for Panettone include serving with Crema di Mascarpone, or chocolate.
Panforte – A Tuscan fruit cake-like dessert making use of various fruits and nuts. Historical evidence refers to Crusaders carrying this hearty dessert for nourishment, and perhaps to satisfy their sweet tooth. The literal translation of panforte is “strong bread”, which refers to the spicy flavor of the dessert. Siena is thought to be the home of panforte.
Panna Cotta – A dessert of Piedmontese origins, Panna cotta is made by dissolving unflavored gelatin in milk, then whisking the milk into sweetened heavy cream (sweetened with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla extract). Panna cotta is refrigerated and served with a caramel or strawberry topping.
Pan Pepato – Pan pepato is often referred to as an Italian chocolate gingerbread. Raisins, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, candied fruit, chocolate, cinnamon, amaretto, honey, nutmeg, and the characteristic black pepper combine to give this dessert its spicy flavor. This cake from Ferrara is typically served around Christmastime and New Year’s.
Pastiera – This traditional Neapolitan cake is made by mixing ricotta cheese with eggs. Flower scented water is typically added, giving pastiera its characteristic floral aroma. A version of pastiera includes an addition of thick cream, which softens the cake. This fragile cake is traditionally baked for Easter.
Pignolata – This soft, Sicilian pastry is presented in small pieces and can serve many people. One half of pignolata is covered in lemon-flavored icing while the other half is covered in chocolate.
Pitta M’Pigliata – Also known is Pita Piata, Pitta M’Pigliata are very similar to cinnamon rolls. This Calabrian dessert is traditionally served during the Christmas season. Some ingredients include walnuts, raisins, brandy, orange juice, and of course, cinnamon.
Pizzella – Native to Abruzzo, this waffle-like cookie that varies between crisp and crunchy or soft and chewy depending on ingredients. Traditional flavorings include anise, vanilla, and lemon zest. A pizzelle iron is used in cooking the dessert, giving it a characteristic snowflake pattern. Pizzella are commonly used to create a dessert sandwich with cannoli cream or hazelnut spread as a filling. Pizzella in Lazio are known as ferratelle and as cancelle in Molise.
Ricciarelli – Crushed almonds, sugar and honey comprise these crunchy, diamond-shaped cookies from Italy. Ricciarelli are a favorite around celebrations and gatherings. Variations to the original recipe leave Ricciarelli coated in powdered sugar or frosted with chocolate.
Savoiardi – Flour, sugar, eggs, and butter are the simple ingredients of this Italian sponge cake native to Valle d’Aosta. Savoiardi is cut into slivers, leaving a crisp and golden crust around moist cake. Savoiardi is used to prepare tiramisu, and is also commonly eaten with Italian creams and sorbetti.
Sfogliatelle – These Italian pastries from the province of Salerno come in the form of a cone or shell with a layered texture. Typically, an orange-flavored ricotta filling is used. Variations include almond paste or candied peel fillings.
Sfogliatine – This cream-filled cookie from Venice comes in disc, rectangular, and fan shapes.
Spumoni – Fruits and nuts can usually be found in this molded Italian ice cream of varying layers of color and flavor. Chocolate and pistachio are the two most common flavors used in spumoni. A layer of whipped cream, fruit and nuts usually separates the varying flavors of ice cream. Cherry bits are a traditional addition. Spumoni is originally from Naples, and spawned the popular Neapolitan ice cream.
Struffoli – Originated in Naples, struffoli consists of marble-sized deep-fried dough balls. Struffoli are served warm with honey containing chopped nuts and orange peel.
Tiramisù – Espresso-dipped savoiardi is layered with egg yolk, sugar, and mascarpone or zabaglione to make this ultra-popular Italian dessert. Cocoa is sprinkled on top of the finished product. Sugar and liquor are optional in the dipping process. Tiramisù is a fairly recent creation; first produced in 1971.
Torrone – Ancient Romans regarded Torrone as a Godly offering. The honey, almond and albumen creation has many regional variations including the Campania version flavored with Strega liqueur. Hazelnuts, pistachios, and chocolate are common modern-day additions to Torrone. Note: Torrone gets its name from the Torione tower in the city of Cremona, which was given as a gift to Francesco Sforza from the father of Bianca Maria Visconti on their wedding day.
Zabaglione – This dessert sauce consists of egg yolk, sugar, and Marsala wine. The custard-like sauce is whipped; the result is a higher air content. Honey was an original ingredient but was replaced with sugar. Cream, mascarpone, or whole eggs are acceptable additions to the ingredient list. Italians serve figs with Zabaglione.
Zeppole – Custard, jelly, butter and honey, or cannoli cream typically fill these deep fried, sugar-coated dough balls served on St. Joseph’s Day. Zeppole are characteristically light and airy, but are sometimes created in a more dense version. Savory varieties of Zeppole are often stuffed with anchovy.
Zuccotto – This Italian sponge cake dessert from Florence is typically flavored with brandy and layered with chilled cream. Zuccotto is traditionally made in a pumpkin-shaped mold.
Zuppa Inglese – A custard-based Italian dessert. Zuppa Inglese consists of Pan di Spagna dipped in Alchermes liquor, and covered in crema pasticciera. Crema alla cioccolata is also a common ingredient, layered between the cakes. To finalize Zuppa Inglese, whipped cream and crushed almonds are typically applied as a topping.