When I think of Italian sweets, I immediately think of the Little Italy-style bakery, with rows of cookies by the pound, breads stacked in the back, and various cakes and pastries out front. But what kind of sweets do Italians--you know, in actual Italy--really favor? While conversing with Cake Gumshoe Elisa, who is based in Italy, while she noted that "Italy has 20 regions and everyone has its particular baked goods", she dished up some of the things you might expect to see at her Italian dessert table; I've put together a little explanation of what they are (with a little help from Wikipedia).
Amaretti: This little cookie is a holiday tradition in Italy (and beyond) which has a delightful story: "In the early 1700s, a Milanese bishop or cardinal surprised the town of Saronno with a visit. A young couple, residents of the town, welcomed him and paid tribute with an original confection: on the spur of the moment, they had baked biscuits made of sugar, egg whites, and crushed apricot kernels or almonds. These so pleased the visiting bishop that he blessed the two with a happy and lifelong marriage, resulting in the preservation of the secret recipe over many generations."
Brutti ma Buoni: Literally translated as "ugly but good", these craggy little cookies are made using a mixture of nuts, egg whites, liqueur, and a bit of cocoa . You can find a recipe from Mario Batali here.
Cannolo alla Siciliana: What we would call a cannoli here in the US (as in, "leave the gun, take the..."). These little sweeties consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta cheese (or alternatively, but less traditionally, sweetened Mascarpone) blended with some combination of vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, Marsala wine, rosewater or other flavorings.
Cassata: The cassata siciliana consists of round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, candied peel, and a chocolate or vanilla filling similar to cannoli cream. It is covered with a shell of marzipan, pink and green pastel colored icing, and decorative designs. The cassata is finally topped with candied fruit depicting cherries and slices of citrus fruit characteristic of Sicily.
Crostata: A crostata is an Italian baked dessert tart, and a form of pie. It is traditionally prepared by folding the edges of the dough over the top of the jam/marmalade filling, creating a more "rough" look, rather than a uniform, circular shape and topped with various jams, pastry cream or fresh fruit. A typical central Italian variety replaces jam with ricotta mixed with sugar, cocoa or pieces of chocolate and anisetta; this is called crostata di ricotta. In terms of recipes, doesn't this one from Herbivoracious sound fantastic?
Pandoro (or pan d'oro): This one is fairly similar to panettone in that it is a traditional Italian sweet yeast bread, most popular around Christmas and New Year. What defines it? Well, it is generally more cakey and less fruit-heavy than panettone, and it is traditionally shaped like a frustum with an 8 pointed-star section. And--deliciously enough--"Modern taste sometimes calls for Pandoro to have a hole cut into its bottom and a part of the soft interior to be removed, the cavity is then filled with chantilly cream or vanilla gelato. Cream or gelato can be served as a garnish to pandoro slices." You can find a recipe here.
Panettone: This is another traditional holiday treat. Simply put, it's "a soft, north Italian yeast brioche with candied fruit, usually prepared for Christmas"--but it's steeped in tradition and lore which you can read about here, if you're so inclined; you can find a recipe here.
Tiramisù: This treat is not baked, but it sure is delicious, made of savoiardi (otherwise known as lady finger biscuits) dipped in espresso or strong coffee, layered with a whipped mixture of egg yolks, mascarpone, and sugar, and topped with cocoa.