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Chow Bella: What Kind of Sweets Do Italians Eat?

Cuppie in Rome
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). 

CakeSpy Note: Please note, however, that the photos are mostly from my (American) archives, so they should be viewed as a mere reference and might not necessarily look the way they would in Italy!


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.

A Cannoli! In Seattle! From Remo Borracchini
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.

Dolce Italia, Queens, NYC
 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. 

EATS Market Crostata
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.

Tiramisu at Dishes, Grand Central Market
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.


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Reader Comments (12)

I like most of these, and I usually make a panettone for Christmas! Tiramisu I need to try again because I didn't let it set enough the last time and it was sloppy. I also love torrone, the almond nougat with a wafer crust. My mom buys a pack and gives it to my brothers and I for Christmas!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

these are the most popular sweets of the Malta too. Maybe cause we re so near to Sicily and originate from there. I love them all :)

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

When I've visited Rome, I'm always sure to get the Tartufo, which in my experience has been ganache with almonds mixed in and maybe some espresso, tucked into the center of a ball of ice cream, with the ice cream ball either powdered with cocoa or covered in a fancy Magic Shell chocolate coating. YUM!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterKarrey

Sfogliatelle and pizzelles are my favs!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

Italy has wonderful desserts! But the one dessert that I ate every day when I was there in the spring was gelato!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterCupcake Activist

I knew Italy had great desserts, putting them in a post like this sort of just rubs it in.

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterTender Branson

I'm incredibly hungry now I've read your post!

Tiramisu, pandoro and panettone are all wonderful, but it's those little amaretto cookies that I adore with their nutty, chewy texture.

Great post!

I love that you looked at this from a regional perspective (good call Gumshoe Elisa!)--regions and regionality affect so many things about food. More important than nationality, IMO.

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterChou

Now that I am starving let me just tell you this....take me with you to test these sweet desserts! I am so jealous of all the things you get to eat. These little sweets need to make their way into my life and soon!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterTHE BILLS FAMILY

in the midst of doing my italian homework, i stumbled upon this post... yum. yum. yum. buona lavora!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterDan


My little old Italian Grandmother and all her other little old Italian quilting bee ladies would bring Pizzelle to quilting to munch on. Homemade of course is the best :)

October 21 | Unregistered CommenterCate

that CASSATA is truly beatiful!! it seems like it needs to be glorified into a hilarious cakespy illustration!!

"cakes of the world" illustration?? a la miss universe??

October 23 | Unregistered Commenterlyndsay
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