Desserts in Italy are quite varied and tend to be fiercely regional. To pick ten that represent the whole of Italy is next to impossible so instead I thought I would focus on ten sweet treats that, in my opinion, you should try when in Italy. They are little off the beaten path and ones that you haven’t tried, but should.
Zuccotto Fiorentino is the oldest known dessert of Florence. It was first served in the 16th century during a banquet in honor of Caterina de’ Medici. Many say, the shape was inspired by the dome of the Florence duomo. The dessert is made by layering strips of sponge cake in a bowl, adding the filling (whipped cream or the classic ricotta and Italian whipped meringue), chocolate chips and candied fruit, and then soaking the cake with liqueur to make it moist. It is usually served semi-freddo or half frozen. Luckily, there are still a couple of pastry shops in Florence where you can eat Zuccotto with one of them being Bottega di Pasticceria.
So this is probably the best known of all Italian desserts so I am sure you are wondering how it made the list. I think trying a truly authentic price of tiramisu is a life changing experience; at least it was for me! Tiramisù literally translates as ‘pick me up’ due to the mood-lifting combination of coffee, cocoa and sweet mascapone. Origins of the recipe are vague, but most accounts agree that it came from the town of Treviso in the Veneto region during the 1960s. Others claim that it can be traced back as early as the 17th century. Nowadays tiramisu is a staple found on all Italian menus in varying forms, with some serving it in a cake-style from a large tray and others preparing it in individual cups or glasses. I never tire of a good tiramisu!
Panna cotta (which means ‘cooked cream’ in Italian) is made by warming thick cream with sugar and gelatin, forming it into molds and then chilling it until set. The cream mixture may be infused with spices such as vanilla or coffee and is often topped with a fruit coulis, chocolate or even caramel. A good panna cotta should have a rich, thick consistency and a sturdy wobble when the plate is shaken.
Tartuffo al Pizzico is a frozen dessert which orginated in Pizzo, a small town in the southern region of Calabria, when King Vittorio Emanuele II visited for an aristocratic wedding. There were not enough cups to serve the gelato dessert to hundreds of people at the celebratory dinner, so the chef devised a version which could be served on a plate by coating the ice-cream in cocoa powder and refreezing before serving. The dessert is typically made with two flavors of gelato, the traditional being hazelnut and dark chocolate with a sinfully liquid chocolate center. Tartufo is the Italian word for ‘truffle’ as the dark, spherical form recalls the shape and color of black truffles.
Pastiera is a traditional cake made in the area of Naples, and it is likely to have originated during ancient times for the Pagan celebrations of springtime. Nowadays it is traditionally eaten at Easter, but sometimes can be found throughout the year. It has a short crust pastry base and a filling made from cooked wheat and ricotta cheese and orange water.
Cassata is a vivid green dessert from Sicily which is prepared either in one large cake or smaller, individual portions (cassatine). It uses traditional Sicilian ingredients including citrus fruits, ricotta and almonds. The recipe involves layering sponge with a filling of sweetened sheep’s milk ricotta cheese mixed with chocolate chips. This is then covered with a layer of marzipan and icing and decorated with candied fruits, giving it a bright, distinctive appearance. It is definitely a labor intensive dessert and if you have the fortune of visiting Sicily or a good Sicilian pastry shop, then you should definitely try this special dessert.
This is Sardinia’s most famous dessert and you can find it throughout the island, but will be hard pressed to find it on the mainland. It is large pastry raviolo made from semolina flour which is stuffed with sheep’s cheese and lemon zest and then deep fried. They are served warm and drizzled with honey to create a delicious balance between sweet and savory. So, if you are visiting Sardina, then this is a must try!
This is a dessert of puréed sweetened chestnuts topped with fresh whipped cream. The name comes from Monte Bianco or Mont Blanc, as it resembles a snow capped mountain. It is also a dessert popular in France. So, if you are in Northern Italy, give this dessert a try!
What can be more delicious than flaky, buttery short crust filled with a luxuriously rich vanilla pastry cream. The history of pasticciotti dates bake to 1745, to Andrea Ascalone. He and his family had a local pastry shop in the town of Galatina near Lecce. One day, he noticed that he had pastry dough and pastry cream left over from a cake he had made. Not having enough to make another large cake and not wanting to waste the ingredients, he took a small copper pot and created a smaller cake. He asked one of his customers to try it. The customer liked it so much he asked Andrea to make some more to take home to his family. Andrea, who had not planned to make more, realized he might a new product on his hand. Since it really came about by accident, Andrea decided to call his new creation a pasticcio or “mishap.” Thus was born the pasticciotto. You can find the recipe on here on my blog:
While this cake originated in Tuscany, it is also popular in the Liguria, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna regions. It was usually made in the late fall after the chestnut crop had been dried and made into flour. It is now found all over Italy but still is most commonly found just in the fall months. It is a very simple, dense cake made with chestnut flour, olive oil, raisins and pine nuts that is moistened and bound together with water and then baked. There is a romantic legend that says the rosemary used to perfume the cake is a powerful love elixir and that if you eat the cake you should fall in love with the person who prepared it for you and that it will convince them to ask you to marry them.
Happy travels and buon appetito!