If there is one thing that Italians love, its sweet food. Italians start their day with something sweet and end their day with a little dessert. It comes as no surprise that Italian desserts are a favorite sweet treat across the globe. They are world-renowned for their frozen gelati. They love using sweet cheeses like mascarpone and ricotta to fill pasta or pastry. Italians especially adore using panna and crema (two different types of creams) in their recipes. Out of the hundreds of country-wide and regional desserts that exist in Italy, here is a list of the nine most important and famous Italian desserts.
What exactly is the difference between Italian gelato and ice cream? Linguistically speaking, gelato is just the Italian translation of “ice cream”. But when it comes to technicalities in the kitchen, gelato and ice cream are two entirely different desserts. Both are cold and sweet, but the ingredients, preparation, and final tastes and textures are very different. Gelato, in comparison, is churned more slowly, giving it a denser, less airy texture than ice cream. It is made with more milk than cream, and no egg – unlike ice cream, which uses more cream than milk and also includes egg. Gelato then is served at a higher temperature, something a bit warmer to allow the taste buds to more fully sense all the flavors in the gelato. In the end, gelato leaves the eater with a more dense, rich, and smooth treat that is filled with a more intense flavor per spoonful. Enjoyed both in cones and in a cups, some of the most popular gelato flavors in Italy include chocolate, cream (which is a simple, plain flavor, much like vanilla is for ice cream), hazelnut, pistachio, stracciatella (which is essentially cream and chocolate chips), and coffee.
Gelato can also be enjoyed in other forms, too. One popular modification to a simple cup of gelato is
affogato al caffè, which, traditionally, is a shot of espresso coffee poured over a scoop of gelato. Another favorite is known as semi-freddo, which is essentially an ice cream cake. Italians love their torte (cakes) and they love gelato. Semi-freddo is a dessert consisting of a crust made of fluffy cake topped with gelato.
Another classic that is world renowned is called a cannolo, or cannoli in the plural. This Sicilian treat has grown so popular that you can find them for sale in just about any city in Italy. Cannoli are tubular pastries filled with a sweet ricotta cheese cream. To make this rich dessert even more luxurious, each end of the pastry is then dipped in something sweet like a hardening chocolate coating, chocolate chips, chopped pistachios, candied citrus fruits, or orange zest. In other cities where the dessert does not originate, most pasticcerie (pastry shops) will have a selection of pre-made cannoli waiting for you, filled that morning. But in Sicily, the cannolo’s region of origin, a good pastry shop will always fill the pastry tube right there in front of you, ensuring it is as fresh and delicious as possible.
A little pick-me-up is always appreciated after a long day. In this case, I mean an Italian “pick-me-up”. Tiramisù, the next of the most famous Italian desserts, quite literally translates to English as “pick-me- up”. This northern dessert originating from the region of Veneto has become a staple in many big city restaurant’s dessert menus. It is quick and easy to make and uses relatively simply ingredients, but in the end creates the most classic and elegant of desserts. The most authentic recipe is made by alternating layers of cookies dipped in coffee and layers of a mascarpone cream. The final layer is then
sprinkled with cocoa powder. Nowadays, there are many variations. The most common variation involves coffee-based liquors for dipping the cookies. The more innovative variations may include strawberry cream or even beer!
Fun Fact: there is a “foodie war” amongst Italians as to which type of cookie is the correct cookie for making an authentic tiramisù. Savoiardi are thicker and more airy. Pavesini are smaller and lighter. Some argue, including this author, that Savoiardi cookies are more authentic and true to the original recipe.
Panna Cotta, which translates to “cooked cream”, is another popular dessert in Italy. Panna, or cream, is cooked with gelatin, formed into a shape, and then left to chill. The overall idea is very similar to pudding. Panna Cotta is quite simple and the flavor can be rather bland, so this dessert is typically not eaten by itself. Instead, it is often used as a base upon which something sweet and exciting is added on top. Popular toppings include chocolate, fruit jams, or coffee cream.
Cantucci and Vin Santo
When an English-speaker pictures “biscotti”, we pictured an Italian cookie, cut into long slices, twice- baked and quite crunchy, often sold at coffee shops. To an Italian, biscotti just means “cookies” in general. This specific kind of cookie that we are picturing is what Tuscan Italians would call a cantuccio (or cantucci in plural). Cantucci are typically almond-flavored with slices of almonds cooked inside.
Variations of the cookies can be made with other nuts or chocolate instead of the classic almonds. Because they are so crunchy, they are usually served alongside a beverage for dipping and sipping – usually a glass of a strong, aged, and sweet dessert wine called Vin Santo.
The final four treats are typical holiday desserts. These treats are not eaten all year long; instead, they are saved for a special occasion. They are a staple for Italians when celebrating Christmas, Easter, and International Women’s Day.
A unique Christmas treat in Italy comes in the form of sweet bread: pandoro. This dessert bread is super soft, extremely buttery, and incredibly delicious! This bread is delicious as is, but there are also variations that include fillings of mascarpone or Nutella. More old-fashioned variations may include dried fruits, chocolate chips, or pistachios. There is even a savory variation of this sweet bread filled with deli meat and cheese. Pandoro has a pyramid-like shape, with the base shaped like a star. If in geometry there exists a rectangular and a triangular pyramid, I would like to invent the word “starular pyramid” to best describe the classic shape of pandoro.
This is basically the Italian version of Fruit Cake. Panettone is a sweet bread filled with dried candied fruits (like raisins) and almonds. This bread, along with pandoro, are staples at the Italian dining table at Christmastime. It doesn’t quite feel like Christmas without it. It’s not truly Christmas without pandoro and panettone passed around the table after dinner.
At Easter season, stores fill with another holiday treat called a colomba. This dessert is similar in composition to panettone; it’s a sweet bread filled with candied fruits. What makes the colomba different, however, is that it is topped with a sugar glaze, sprinkles, and chopped almonds. It is also cooked into the shape of a bird, specifically, a dove. Colomba literally translates to “dove” in Italian. Always next to the colomba at the dessert table is an Easter egg. These “eggs” do not come from chickens, but are instead gigantic egg-shaped chocolates that are hollow and usually come with a treat inside.
Fun Fact: Pandoro, Panettone, and Colomba are moderately difficult to bake and require a fair amount of talent and time. For this reason, very few Italians will make these treats in their own homes. Most opt to buy them from directly from an artisanal baker, or the cheaper industrial versions from the supermarket.
The word “mimosa” to some may conjure up a mental image of champagne and orange juice. But to an Italian, a mimosa is a flower. More importantly, the mimosa flower became the symbol of the women’s movement in the 1940s and has now become the Italian symbol for la Festa della Donna (International Women’s Day). The mimosa flower is bright yellow, feminine, and dainty-looking, but it is also an incredibly strong and durable flower that is able to grow, thrive, and bloom in even hostile terrain – much like the strong women that we celebrate on International Women’s Day. Alongside presenting a mimosa flower to women on la Festa della Donna, it is also common to gift a mimosa cake.
The torta (cake) mimosa is a delicious and dainty cake, and surprisingly difficult to make. It is made from a sponge cake, which is then cut into layers. In between each layer, a layer of cream is spread. One layer is set aside, crumbled into pieces, soaked in a liquid of choice (usually sweet liquor or pineapple juice) and then reapplied crumbled on top of the finished cake. The crumbled pieces of sponge cake on top give the cake a flower-like resemblance. To add to the mimosa resemblance, some bakers will even add a bit of yellow turmeric to the crumbled cake bits to make it even more yellow like the flower.