9 Italian Desserts Not to Miss While in Italy

Tiramisu, cannoli, and panna cotta are a few of the best, most classic Italian desserts you must try while traveling in Italy.

A tray of sfogliatella pastries dusted with powdered sugar

Sfogliatella were supposedly invented by a nun on the Amalfi Coast.

Photo by Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock

It’s fair to say that Italians have a sweet tooth. Breakfast is usually coffee and a pastry and, in the summer, Italians will head to their favorite gelateria after lunch or dinner. Traditionally, a meal consists of an antipasto, primo (pasta, soup, or rice), a secondo (a main dish, usually meat or fish), and a dolce (dessert), even if people will often choose just two or three courses at a restaurant. After school, kids usually have an afternoon snack known as a merenda that consists of something sweet like crostata (a baked tart usually made with jam or ricotta).

Italian cuisine is very regional, so you’ll find different desserts in each of the country’s 20 regions. There are even some towns known for a particular sweet. That said, some desserts like tiramisu and gelato have become so widespread that you can find them all over Italy. And nearly every holiday has a dessert, like panettone for Christmas, colomba for Easter, and frappe and castagnole for Carnevale. If you have a sweet tooth, use this guide to Italy’s essential desserts and where to find them.

1. Sfogliatella

Found in pasticcerie and cafés around Naples and the Amalfi Coast, this flaky pastry is shaped a bit like a seashell or a lobster tail (there’s a version called coda d’aragosta, or lobster tail) and filled with ricotta scented with citrus peel and cinnamon. There are two versions: either made with frolla (smooth) or riccia (curly) dough. Legend has it that they were invented by a nun at the cloistered convent of Santa Rosa in the village of Conca dei Marini on the Amalfi Coast.

Where to find it

Now a luxury hotel, Monastero Santa Rosa still serves sfogliatella for breakfast in homage to the nun’s original recipe. Another excellent place to get it is the historic Pasticceria Andrea Pansa in Amalfi.

Three small servings of panna cotta in glass dishes, decorated with strawberries and blueberries

Cooked cream never looked so good.

Photo by Ekaterina Markelova/Shutterstock

2. Panna cotta

Literally translating to “cooked cream,” this soft, silky pudding is as simple as it gets. The main ingredients are heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, and gelatin, which get blended and then set in a refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. It’s believed to originate in Piedmont, though it didn’t enter the mainstream until the 1960s. Often garnished with a fruit coulis or perhaps fresh fruit, panna cotta is available in restaurants and hotels across Italy.

Where to find it

The pastry chef at Rome’s Hotel de Russie makes a fantastic panna cotta with strawberry coulis.

Two cannoli in paper sleeves atop a wooden cutting board

Cannoli began life in Sicily but is now ubiquitous across Italy.

Photo by Pinkcandy / Shutterstock

3. Cannoli

One of Italy’s best-known desserts, cannoli (the singular is cannolo) originated in Sicily, but can be found all over the country and beyond. The tube-shaped dessert is made of fried pastry dough filled with whipped ricotta sweetened with sugar and candied orange. You’ll sometimes see versions featuring pistachios, chocolate chips, or candied cherries. The origin can be traced back to the 10th or 11th century, when Arabs ruled Sicily, with one legend saying that cannoli were invented in a Moorish harem as a vaguely phallic tribute to the sultan, while another legend attributes their invention to the nuns of a convent in Caltanissetta.

Where to find it

Look for them at Sicilian pasticcerie such as Pasticceria Cappello in Palermo and Dagnino in Rome.

A square of tiramasu on white plate, with small glass cup of espresso

Think Italian dessert and you probably think tiramasu, but you’ve not really had it until you’ve had it in Italy.

Photo by stockcreations / Shutterstock

4. Tiramisu

Perhaps the most iconic Italian dessert, tiramisu appears on menus at restaurants not only throughout Italy but also all over the world. An irresistible combination of layers of coffee-soaked savoiardi and mascarpone whipped with sugar and eggs, topped with cocoa powder, it’s either served as slices like a cake or in individual glasses or cups. Its origins are hotly contested between the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, although the Italian government has officially recognized it as a product of Friuli—a bit surprising, since its name translates to “pick-me-up” in the dialect of Veneto. Countless variations have been born, from matcha tiramisu to deconstructed tiramisu. It’s usually eaten at the end of a meal, though bakeries sometimes sell individual portions.

Where to find it

Bar Pompi is the self-declared king of tiramisu and has versions flavored with strawberry, pistachio, or hazelnut as well as the classic tiramisu. It has six locations in Rome (including one near the Spanish Steps and another near the Trevi Fountain), plus a location in Florence.

A serving of pistachio granita in glass dish, with brioche on plate behind it on table outdoors

In centuries past, granita was made with the snow that fell on Mount Etna.

Photo by Giuseppe Lombardo

5. Granita

Aside from gelato, granita is the best way to cool down during the heat of a Sicilian summer. Made with water, sugar, and fruit or nuts, it’s slowly frozen and stirred continuously, resulting in a consistency somewhere in between the creaminess of gelato and the granularity of sorbet. In past centuries, it was made with the snow that fell on Mount Etna and derives from the Arab sherbet made with rose water. Nowadays, you can find dozens of flavors, but the most traditional ones are almond, pistachio, coffee, and lemon. Sicilians start their day by dunking a brioche into granita for breakfast, but it can be eaten throughout the day.

Where to find it

Caffè Sicilia in Noto serves a superlative version, but you can find it all over Sicily at gelaterias and little food trucks parked near popular beaches.

A circular serving of Bonet on rectangular white plate, garnished with sliced strawberry and yellow sauce

The rich chocolate base that bonet provides can be complemented with nuts and fruit for more crunch and flavor.

Photo by Framarzo / Shutterstock

6. Bonet

This rich, chocolate pudding is served throughout Piedmont, especially in the Langhe hills around Alba. Eaten with a spoon, it’s made like a crème caramel, with crumbled amaretti cookies, eggs, sugar, cocoa, milk, and rum. It’s sometimes served with hazelnuts, which grow in the region. The exact origins of bonet are unknown, but there are references to a chocolate-less version of it being served at noble banquets during the 13th century. Cocoa was added sometime after the European conquest of South America.

Where to find it

Turin’s Farmacia del Cambio, an elegant bar/pasticceria inside a pharmacy that dates back to 1833, is one of the best places to try bonet, but you’ll also see it on menus across the region.

A dome-shaped pale yellow delizia al limone on small gold plate

Italy’s desserts look as good as they taste.

Photo by VPhotography / Shutterstock

7. Delizia al limone

Invented in 1978 by pastry chef Carmine Marzuillo, who worked at the hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento, this delightful little cake makes use of the lemons that the area is famous for. Shaped like a dome, it’s composed of sponge cake filled with lemon cream, soaked in limoncello, and topped with pale yellow icing. Usually eaten at the end of a meal, it can be found at restaurants and in pasticcerie all over the Campania region.

Where to find it

For a superlative delizia al limone and many other sweets, head to Pepe Mastro Dolciere in the small town of Sant’Egidio del Monte Albino near Salerno.

Three maritozzo buns, filled with whipped cream, with three different toppings

Head to a traditional bakery in Rome for the best maritozzo.

Photo by funny face / Shutterstock

8. Maritozzo

A sweet that’s found almost exclusively in Rome, the maritozzo is a soft bun split down the middle and filled with whipped cream. Its origins can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, but it became popular during the Middle Ages, when the church allowed it to be eaten during the fasting days of Lent. Its name derives from the word marito, which means husband, and during the 19th century, men would propose by hiding a ring in a maritozzo.

Where to find it

You can find traditional versions at old-school bakeries like Regoli and Roscioli Caffè, where they can be eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Roman chefs also like to play with the recipe by making savory versions with chicken salad or burrata and tomatoes, which you can try at MadeITerraneo run by Michelin-starred chef Riccardo Di Giacinto.

Hands of server with silver scoop of red gelato atop scoop of chocolate in wavy wafer

You can’t leave Italy without trying at least two scoops of gelato.

Photo by Tyler Olson / Shutterstock

9. Gelato

Is ice cream the main reason to travel? Perhaps not, but it’s up there. We recently rounded up 20 places with great ice cream in the U.S. alone. Nowhere does it like Italy, though, where gelato is generally made with less cream and less air, thanks to a longer churn period that results in a denser dessert. Flavors and textures range from chocolatey and creamy to fruity and light, and gelaterie across the country dispense their own unique spins into cups and cones.

Where to find it

The title for Italy’s best gelato could be gifted to many places: Milan, Rome, Florence, and Spoleto are among the Italian cities with excellent gelato shops.

This article was originally published in April 2022. It was updated in August 2023. Tim Chester contributed reporting, mostly around ice cream.

Laura Itzkowitz is a freelance journalist based in Rome with a passion for covering travel, arts and culture, lifestyle, design, food, and wine.
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