We love eating traditional Italian desserts and pastries and have been enjoying them for decades. Read on to discover our favorite Italian pastries and other sweet treats to eat in Italy and the rest of the world.
Eating in Italy is a magical. The country is a culinary wonderland with pizza and pasta as its star attractions. But don’t rule out classic Italian desserts and pastries from the best things to eat in Italy. Many of the best desserts in Italy rank among the best desserts in the world.
Discover more than 100 desserts to eat around the world.
When you consider all of the desserts in Italy, the variety is astounding.
Italy’s 20 unique regions feature different climates, histories and customs. Food in sun drenched regions like Basilicata and Puglia is different from the cuisine in temperate regions like Emilia-Romagna and the cooler Alpine region of Trentino. And then there are islands like Sardinia and Sicily as well as major Italian food cities like Bologna, Rome, Naples and Venice – all with their own dessert specialties.
Explore the best food to eat in Italy.
In the past, many traditional Italian desserts were only available in specific regions while certain Italian pastries surfaced once a year during festivals and on religious holidays. That has changed.
If you had hypothetically visited Italy 150 years ago you, you would have been limited to eating a Cannoli in Sicily and a Sfogliatella in Naples. Now it’s entirely possible to eat both iconic Italian pastries in cities like Florence and even in America. This same concept applies to popular Italian Christmas desserts like Panettone and Torrone, both of which are traditionally eaten in December but can be found, albeit with a bit of effort, throughout the year.
Don’t skip the Dolci (Italian for dessert) section on an Italian menu unless you’re saving your sweet tooth for an after dinner espresso and treat at a local cafe.
Our Favorite Italian Desserts and Pastries
We initially experienced and enjoyed Italy’s sugary, creamy classics in American cities including Philadelphia, Boston, New York and San Francisco.
These cities all have vibrant neighborhoods populated with Italian immigrants. With those communities come a plethora of Italian-American bakeries that bake pastries and desserts from Italy.
But, despite the availability of Italian sweets in America, we’ve discovered that there’s nowhere better to eat traditional Italian desserts than in the boot. The country’s commitment to butter, sugar and flour rivals its French and Austrian neighbors. Italian sweets are nothing short of legendary.
Read on to discover the traditional Italian desserts and pastries that we love eating all over the world but especially in Italy. Although our Italy dessert list includes more than two dozen new and old classic confections, you won’t want to skip even one.
You’ll likely want to start your Italy dessert exploration with Tiramisu – arguably the country’s most famous dessert.
We’ve enjoyed so many versions of Italy’s layered, creamy, coffee-soaked and powdered Italian classic made with ladyfingers and mascarpone cream. Featured on menus all over the boot, this dessert has a dubious past that some culinary historians allegedly trace to the pleasure houses of Treviso. It was allegedly eaten by philandering men who needed a caffeine ‘pick me up’ in order to appear alert to their suspicious wives the next morning.
As with most edibles in Italy, despite the story above, Tiramisu’s origin isn’t clear. What is clear is that we’ve enjoyed excellent versions of traditional Tiramisu all over Northern Italy from Verona and Venice in the Veneto to Parma in Emilia-Romagna. Some were cake-like slices served on plates while others were puddings served in deep bowls. Regardless of the serving vessel, all versions of this classic Italian pudding/cake were moist, coffee-filled, ultra-creamy and rich.
To make Cannoli, Sicilian bakers stuff cylinder shaped fried dough with ricotta cream and occasionally sprinkle chocolate, nuts and candied fruit on the edges. The resulting pastry is simultaneously crunchy, sweet and utterly addictive.
Generations of bakers have prepared Cannoli in Sicily going back to the days of Arab rule more than a millennium ago. Some brought the recipe across the ocean when they emigrated to America. Thanks to them, Cannoli are readily available at Italian bakeries in cities like Boston, Philadelphia New York and New Orleans.
Order premade Cannoli tubes from Amazon if you want to try making Cannoli at home.
The Sfogligatella has been a popular Neapolitan dessert since the 17th century. But what is a Sfogliatella?
For the uninitiated, the Sfogliatella is an addictively tasty pastry that comes in two main styles – Riccia and Frolla. Order a Sfogliatella Riccia if you prefer eating a flaky, layered pastry or a Sfogliatella Frolla if you’re partial to a shortcrust pastry shell.
Stuffed with special ricotta cream that’s never too sweet, the best sfogliatellas are freshly baked and hot out of the oven. Whichever version you choose, pair your Sfogliatella with coffee to create an ideal Naples breakfast.
Learn about coffee in Naples. It’s the best beverage to drink with a Sfogliatella.
4. Fiocco di Neve
Naples is world-famous for its pizza and other savory foods, but it’s a little known fact among food travelers that France’s influence over the Kingdom of Naples has made the region’s desserts equally auspicious. While we adore classic Italian pastries like Sfogliatella (see above) and Ministeriale (see below), the Fiocco di Neve may be our very favorite Neapolitan pastry.
A tender, airy brioche pastry filled with slightly cool cream and dusted with powdered sugar, Pasticceria Poppella’s Fiocco di Neve is a little snowflake of yumminess. We’re not being cute when we call it a snowflake since that is the literal translation of the pastry’s name. Note: Poppella is THE place for Fiocco di Neve in Napoli.
Discover more great things to eat in Naples.
Not only is Gelato one of the most popular Italian desserts, but it’s also proof that desserts don’t need flour or eggs to taste divine. Italy’s version of ice cream accomplishes this feat with milk, cream, sugar and a range of fresh fruits and nuts.
After eating gelato cones all over Italy in cities like Bologna, Florence, Naples, Rome, Venice and Verona, we’ve yet to eat a cone we haven’t liked. In fact, we’re craving a cone right now.
Buy a copy of The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto from Amazon if you want to learn how to make Gelato at home.
Bomboloni are Italy’s version of the Berliner which is Germany’s version of the filled doughnut which is Austria’s version of… you get the point. Bomboloni, which are commonly found at Italian cafes, can be filled with cream or jelly and are often found in the same case as Cornettos, Italy’s version of France’s Croissant.
Discover more great donuts eaten around the world.
We weren’t surprised to enjoy a terrific Bombolone at Ditta Artigianale, Florence’s original specialty coffee roaster. It’s almost impossible to find a bad Bombolone in Italy. We’ll let you know if it ever happens to us.
Learn more about Florence’s burgeoning specialty coffee scene.
The Cassata hasn’t lasted for a thousand years, give or take, by accident.
Similar to Sicily’s Cannoli, Cassata ingredients include ricotta cheese and candied fruit. But this Italian ricotta cake goes further with the addition of liqueur-soaked sponge cake, marzipan and icing. It’s also a tasty Gelato flavor that we order whenever we see it on a menu.
8. Zuppa Inglese
Zuppa Inglese proves the old adage of not judging a book by its cover. Or, in this case, by the dessert’s name.
Although Zuppa Inglese literally translates to English Soup and may have been inspired by England’s Trifle, this dish is a delightful multilayered Italian dessert that involves dipping sponge cake layers into Alchermes liqueur and layering them with cream.
The end result is a custard that’s different at every restaurant in Italy’s Food Valley. The tricolor confection is also one of the most colorful desserts in Italy.
Learn more about Italy’s Food Valley in Emilia Romagna.
9. Panna Cotta
Though its history isn’t certain, Panna Cotta was most likely created in Italy’s Piedmont region as recently as the 1960s but it may have appeared as far back as the 19th century. Still popular all over the Italian peninsula, it’s a fairly unique dessert that manages to be creamy without being runny.
Regardless of when and where the iconic creamy dessert was invented, there’s something utterly modern about a great Panna Cotta. The dessert derives its ‘spoonability’ from the addition of gelatin and it’s typically served in a flat dome shape though we’ve also eaten traditional Panna Cotta in a pudding glass.
Flavoring Panna Cotta is an open book but, generally, fruits like berries and citrus flavor the creamy mixture. We’ve enjoyed eating the dessert at locations around the world – Bologna, Philadelphia and Rhodes just to name a few cities.
Discover more great food in Rhodes where we ate the Panna Cotta pictured above.
It would be easy to confuse a Cannoncino with a Cannoli (see above). After all, the two cream-filled Italian pastries have similar names and consist of stuffed pastry cylinders. But the similarities end there.
Unlike Sicily’s Cannoli, the Cannoncino is shaped like a horn and stuffed with a variety of creams ranging from simple pastry cream to creams flavored with chocolate, pistachio and sweet wine.
Honestly, we were skeptical about the difference until we ate our first Cannoncino in Parma. We proceeded to eat one every day during our week-long visit just to be sure.
Discover more great food in Parma.
In simple terms, Millesfoglie is the Italian version of France’s Millefuille.
That being said, the version of the layered puff pastry and cream masterpiece we ate in Verona at Dolce Locanda was less dainty than the delicate, intricately decorated Millefeuilles we’ve previously savored in Paris. That being said, we consider the Italian version to be one of the very best sweets we’ve ever eaten.
Discover more great food in Verona.
12. Biscotti and Cantuccini
Biscotti, also known as Cantuccini, are oblong, twice-baked almond cookies similar to Mandelbrot in Eastern Europe. Italy’s version was first baked in Tuscany centuries ago before spreading throughout the country and beyond.
Tuscan people dip Cantuccini into Vin Santo, Tuscany’s slow fermented holy wine made with white grapes. We were first introduced to this Tuscan tradition during a fun Cesarine cooking class in Florence. After our host advised us to dip each twice-baked biscuit twice, we didn’t want to eat them without sweet wine ever again. Unless it was morning. Maybe.
Read more about our Cesarine experiences in Bologna and Florence.
13. Torta Ricotta e Visciole
Legend has it that Jewish bakers created the Torta Ricotta e Visciole, i.e. Ricotta and Sour Cherry Cake, in the 18th century when Roman Jews were forbidden to sell dairy products to Christians. By mixing ricotta with cherries and adding a flat crust topper, the creamy ricotta was hidden. Problem solved!
As for us, we have no problem eating Torta Ricotta e Visciole. The combination of sweet sheep’s milk ricotta and sour black cherries creates a dessert that’s satisfyingly sweet without being cloying.
Discover more Rome food favorites.
14. Bussola Cookies
Dessert fans who travel to Venice could easily eat Gelato every day and be happy but that would be as shame. The watery city has a slew of classic cafes and pastry shops that sell traditional cakes and cookies. The Bussolà cookie is the most iconic of the lot.
Created on Burano, Venice’s most colorful island, Bussola cookies were previously baked by local women for their husbands to take on fishing expeditions. Today, bakeries sell these simple cookies that pair perfectly with coffee. Whether you dip or dunk is up to you.
Discover more great food in Venice.
If you’re not familiar with Zuccato, close your eyes and imagine a little mound of cream or mousse surrounded by liquor-soaked sponge cake. A local favorite since it debuted in Florence during the 16th century, the semifreddo dessert eventually fell out of fashion.
Order one if you see it on a Florence menu even if you’re not hungry. It’s that good. Plus, it’s shaped like the Duomo which is nothing short of special.
16. Babà al Rum
Francophiles will be happy to find the Italian version of France’s Baba au Rhum in Naples. Just like its French cousin, the Neapolitan Babà is soaked in rum and is typically shaped like a mushroom.
You can try Babà at one of the thousands of bakeries in the city unless you’d rather eat one for dessert after dinner at a Naples trattoria or osteria. For a fun twist, try Babà soaked in Limoncello syrup. Even better, pair it with a shot of the local lemon liqueur for an extra kick.
17. Budino di Riso
Although Budino di Riso translates to Rice Pudding, this Tuscan dessert is actually a tart with a rice pudding center and a shortcrust pastry exterior. Beyond rice, the Budino di Riso recipe includes wholesome ingredients like butter, cream, eggs, milk and sugar. Lemon zest, the final ingredient, provides extra zip and zing.
You can eat your Budino di Riso whenever you desire a sweet treat in Florence. Locals eat these rice-based tarts with coffee in the morning, with tea in the afternoon and with sweet wine at dessert.
Discover our favorite things to eat and drink in Florence.
Despite its formal name, the Ministerial is a fun chocolate dessert shaped like a medallion and filled with liqueur-laden cream. Francesco Scaturchio invented this Neapolitan chocolate dessert more than a century ago and its recipe remains a secret to this day.
The culinarily curious can guess the ingredients when they eat this sweet treat at Pasticceria Giovanni Scaturchio or simply enjoy the dessert with a cup of coffee. Maybe you’ll be like us and fit into both categories.
19. Pizza Ebraica
Pizza fans have their own dessert in Rome. Don’t worry – it doesn’t involve cheese, meat or herbs. Instead, Pizza Ebraica, i.e. Jewish Pizza, gets its flavors from toasted raisins, nuts and colorful candied fruit.
After tasting Pizza Ebraica at Pasticceria il Boccione during our first trip to Rome, we were obsessed to eat it again during our most recent Rome food adventure. The Jewish Ghetto bakery was finally open on our third try, so we bought a ‘pie’ big enough for a delightful snack and breakfast the next day. Be warned – The bakery ladies will likely ask you to throw a euro in the Tzedakah cup – something we did, gladly.
Pizza Ebraica was just as good as we remembered and maybe even better. Simultaneously sweet and savory, the hard, dense, crunchy dessert reminds us of mandel bread on steroids.
Discover our favorite Rome pizza shops for those times that we crave savory pizza in the eternal city.
20. Schiacciata all’Uva
Schiacciata all’Uva is Schiacciata’s dessert cousin with wine grapes and sugar added to the savory smashed bread’s recipe… but the recipe doesn’t stop there. Baking Schiacciata all’Uva involves filling two layers of bread with grapes and adding more on top.
Once baked, the jammy pastry is moist and satisfying without being cloyingly sweet. It’s yet another reason to visit Florence in the autumn months since that’s when Tuscan grapes are harvested.
21. Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Fried dough balls called Zeppole are popular in Naples but the one to look for is called Zeppole di San Giuseppe. Once you know what it looks like, it’s not hard to find the colorful choux pastry filled with custard and topped with more custard and cherries.
Traditionally eaten during the Feast of St. Joseph in March, the Zeppole di San Giuseppe is now available at Naples bakeries all year long. The only challenge is deciding whether to eat this Neapolitan pastry with your hands or with a fork.
22. Santa Rosa
The Santa Rosa version of Naples’ Sfoligatella (see above) is so special that it gets its own entry. Unlike a basic Riccia or Frolla Sfogliatella, the Santa Rosa has sweet cream and syrupy cherries on top.
More than ‘just’ a ramped up Riccia Sfogliatella, the Santa Rosa, dating back centuries, was originally a convent pastry invented by nuns on the Amalfi Coast. Once a hyper-local treat, it’s now readily available at shops like Sfogliatella Mary in Naples.
A Maritozzo is essentially a brioche bun split down the middle and stuffed with whipped cream. What could be better and more simple than that? To us, the origin story is what makes this pastry special.
A local fixture for centuries, the Maritozzo became part of Roman lore in the 19th century when suitors would present buns filled with cream… and a ring… to their intendeds in early March. Not coincidentally, the word maritozzo doubles as slang for husband.
Learn more about Rome’s specialty coffee scene if you like to start your days with third wave coffee.
24. Ciambelline al Vino
While Florentines enjoy eating Cantuccini with Vin Santo (see above), Romans don’t mess around with their cookie recipes. Instead, they add wine along with pantry ingredients like flour, sugar and olive oil to bake little ‘wine donuts’ called Ciambelline al Vino.
Most Ciambelline al Vino recipes are flexible and incorporate either white or red wine. Eating them is also flexible. While locals often dip the round cookies into wine, we dipped ours into chocolate sauce while enjoying glasses of wine – a true wine win.
Italy’s Cornetto isn’t all that different from France’s Croissant which is not all that different from an Austrian Kipfel. They all look like horns and are popular breakfast treats.
In Italy, pasticcerie (i.e. pastry shops) and caffetterie (i.e. coffee shops) serve the brioche pastries along with cappuccinos and espressos each morning. Popular fillings include custard, jam and chocolate cream. Some even come filled with Nutella (see below) and pistachio cream.
While Americans have claimed the Apple Pie as their own, Italians bake pies with flaky crust and fill them with jam. Popular filling flavors include apricot, blueberry and plum. Some bakers go crazy by using Nutella (see below) instead of jam.
Not limited to one city or region, the Crostata is popular from the top of the boot to the bottom. Be sure to look out for pies in Modena where pasticcerie fill Crostate with jam made with Vignola cherries.
Discover more great food in Modena.
Originally made in Sicily centuries ago with snow gathered from Mount Etna, Granita is often sold at Italian gelaterie (gelato shops) with brioche. But don’t confuse these two Italian summer treats. Gelato and Granita are actually quite different from each other.
While Gelato includes milk in its list of ingredients, Granita is a dairy-free dessert that can be either chunky or smooth. Popular flavors include lemon, almond, chocolate, coffee and strawberry. However, it’s difficult to beat pistachio Granita. After all, Sicily is famous for pistachios too.
28. Salame di Cioccolato (Chocolate Salami)
Italians love cured meats like Mortadella, Prosciutto and Pancetta. They also love desserts shaped like Salami but made with chocolate.
Although Salame di Cioccolato looks like it could be a meat roll, this is a meat-free dessert. Typical ingredients include cocoa, cookies, nuts and butter. Sometimes rum too. And the best part? This dessert can be made without an oven.
While many of Italy’s traditional desserts hail from Naples and Sicily, Panettone is an exception to this rule. This Italian Christmas dessert was invented in Milan before its popularity spread around Italy and to other countries.
Less sweet than most Italian desserts, Panettone is Italy’s puffy round version of brioche. Beyond its eggy, buttery bread base, Panettone gets its flavor from ingredients like candied fruit, chocolate chips and raisins.
Fun Fact: To make Panettone, Italian bakers hang the eggy bread upside down after baking. This unique technique prevents the puffy risen rounds from collapsing.
Buy a Panettone cake imported from Italy via Amazon.
30. Torrone (Nougat)
Torrone was probably invented in Italy unless it was invented in Spain. Either way, the nougat candy made with egg whites, honey and nuts is popular all over the boot especially during the Christmas season.
Different Italian regions like Abruzzo, Campania, Lombardy, Sardinia and Sicily prepare versions of Torrone that range from soft and chewy to hard and crunchy. The only way to find your favorite is to try them all.
Buy a box of assorted Torrone imported from Italy via Amazon.
Originally produced by Pietro Ferrero in Piedmont’s Alba, Nutella has made its way around the world. Today, Nutella is synonymous with chocolate hazelnut spread. Its ubiquitous popularity has catapulted Ferraro to become one of world’s biggest confectionary companies.
People enjoy Nutella in various ways. Some slather it over bread while others use it as a baking ingredient. The options are endless though there’s nothing wrong with eating a spoonful of Nutella straight from the jar. Just don’t double dip if you plan to share the jar with other people.
Buy a jar of Nutella from Amazon to enjoy at home.
32. Ricotta Cheesecake
When most people think about Cheesecake, they typically think about the versions created in New York City and Japan. Of course, they think about Italian Cheesecake too.
Unlike other Cheesecakes made with cream cheese, Italy’s Cheesecake has ricotta as a key ingredient. Using this fresh cheese results in a lighter texture that’s both lower in fat and higher in protein. Additional ingredients like candied citrus fruit, vanilla and almond make this creamy Italian cake a winner.
33. Amaretti Cookies
Depending on the region where it’s baked, an Amaretti cookie can be either soft and chewy or hard and crispy. However, regardless of its origin, this cookie makes for a great meal ender especially when enjoyed with an espresso or sweet liqueur.
The list of Italian regions that bake Amaretti cookies includes Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont and Tuscany. While in Rome, we tasted Lazio’s version – a light, fluffy, slightly chewy, lightly crunchy, almond flavored half orb topped with a whole almond.
Once we’ve tried them all, we’ll let you know which region bakes our favorite.
34. Apple Strudel
Although typically associated with Austria where it’s the national dish, Apple Strudel is a popular dessert in Northern Italy too. While this popularity may sounds odd, it actually makes perfect sense considering that Renetta apples, grown in Alto Adige orchards, are ideal apples for baking Apple Strudel.
Most restaurants in Trento serve Apple Strudel as well as other Northern Italians desserts. They also serve pizza and pasta. Although Trentino’s capital city isn’t far from the Austrian border, Trento is still an Italian city after all.
Discover more great food in Trento.
35. Affogatto al Caffè
Both a dessert and a beverage, the Affogatto al Caffè is a two-ingredient dessert that tops a scoop or two of frozen gelato with a shot of hot espresso. The magic happens once the gelato starts to melt and the two components become one.
In Italy, you can order an Affogato at both gelato shops and restaurants as well as at sidewalk cafes. If you’re feeling festive, you can pour a shot of amaretto or another Italian liqueur in your glass. However, this addition turns the Affogatto into a three-ingredient dessert. You may just want to order an Amaretto Sour instead.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: July 24, 2021