Photo by Giuseppe Lombardo
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Sfogliatella were supposedly invented by a nun on the Amalfi Coast.
Tiramisu, cannoli, and panna cotta are a few of the best, most classic Italian desserts you must try while traveling in Italy.
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.
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.
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.
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, it can be found in restaurants and hotels across Italy.
The pastry chef at Rome’s Hotel de Russie makes a fantastic panna cotta with strawberry coulis.
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. Their 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.
Look for them at Sicilian pasticcerie such as Pasticceria Cappello in Palermo and Dagnino in Rome.
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 cacao 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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