It is a nearly impossible to choose just ten desserts that represent Italy. Italian desserts are many, varied, seasonal, and fiercely regional, so it is difficult to proclaim a definitive list. The north to south differences in climate have much to do with dessert preference, and though there are several that most everyone will recognize, there are a multitude of specialities that seldom make it out of their regions, let alone across the pond to Italian restaurants. So if you come across them, do not hesitate; run to try them.
Gelato, which literally translates to “frozen,” isn’t an Italian invention, but came from China. This dessert was most likely was introduced to Italy through the traveller merchants of the 14th century. The Italians’ passion for this vast array of creamy, fruity, chocolatey mountains of frosty delightfulness seems to have taken hold more universally in the 18th century and unites Italy like nothing else. There are three main differences between American ice cream and its Italian gelato cousin: fat, air, and serving temperature. Most gelato uses less cream and more milk, few or no egg yolks and sometimes only sweetened fruit purees, making it a sorbet or sorbetto. Gelato and sorbet is churned at a lower speed, making the gelato denser than ice cream and seemingly more flavor-intensive because less air is whipped into it. Gelato is also kept and served at a warmer temperature than ice cream, so that it stays softer and creamier. So many flavors, so little time.
The next Italian dessert that comes a close second to uniting Italy is tiramisu, which translates literally to “pull me up” or “a little pick-me-up.” This refrigerated dessert features layers of ladyfingers dipped in espresso coffee, nestled between rich mascarpone cream cheese that has been lightened with the addition of sweetened and whipped egg yolks and cream. There is much debate about its origins, but most agree that it hails from the Veneto region of northern Italy. I must admit, however, that I prefer the folk origin story that tiramisu was inspired as an after-school snack made by a grandmother that didn’t have much in the house but a packet of ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese, and espresso coffee. Grandma dipped the ladyfingers in the coffee, then swiped them through the mascarpone cheese and the children were happy. With a few tweaks to this snack, this classic dessert was born. It is also popular to make non-coffee varieties of tiramisu with sweetened strawberries or lemon sauce, so be on the lookout for these worthy variations.
Panna cotta, which translates from Italian to “cooked cream,” is a favorite dolci and originated from the Piedmont region, famous for its rich dairy heritage. The original method of making this dessert most likely came from cooking the cream with honey and egg whites. The modern version is made with the highest quality cream that is lightly sweetened and held together ever so slightly with gelatin derived from fish cartilage and left to set up in a small, tall mold. Some of the best panna cotta have a distinct jiggle when they are unmolded and served. They are usually served with a fruit compote, caramel, or chocolate sauce. When done well, it is an ethereal, melt-on-your-palate experience.
Baba au rhum is a tall cylindrical yeasted cake that has been soaked in rum syrup (alcoholic or non) and sometimes filled with pastry cream or whipped cream. This rich dough is enriched with eggs, butter, and milk. It is thought to have originated in Poland and made its way to Paris, onward through the Lorraine and Alsace regions of France until it arrived in Naples, where its popularity took hold and to this day remains a sought-after delicacy. This street sweet evolved into a cake that is made up of several babas in a ring. When done well, light, syrupy rum babas are so delicious that you will want to savor every bite.
Cassata is a rich cake from Sicily that layers sponge cake rounds with sweetened ricotta and candied citrus peel. The whole cake is enrobed with marzipan, a sweet almond dough sheet, and decorated with candied fruit or marzipan molded fruit shapes, for which Sicily is so famous. The dessert seems to have its roots back in the Middle Ages, during the period when Sicily was under Muslim rule. A variation that hails from Naples consists of gelato layers in place of the ricotta and fruit, like an ice cream cake. The whole cake is covered in a sugar glaze. Either version is a worthy finish to any meal and a delight for your palate.
Cannoli are Sicilian pastry disks that have been rolled around a tube and fried. The single cannolo, or “little tube,” is filled with sweetened ricotta, candied citrus fruit pieces, and sometimes chocolate bits.
This “partly cold” dessert is a name given to a loose range of frozen desserts that can be layers of cookies or cakes with gelato, mousse, or whipped cream and fruit. Although frozen, it is served when it is not too hard.
This classic Tuscan dessert consists of almond-laced biscotti that are served with a sweet wine for dipping. A light finish to a meal.
This chocolate almond cake hails from the island of Capri. It is a simple cake that is moist and usually soft in the center.
Zabaglione is a classic Italian dessert and sometimes a beverage served with fresh berries in a champagne glass or flavored with espresso coffee. It consists of egg yolks that have been sweetened with sugar and Marsala wine, then whipped over a hot water bath until it’s very light and fluffy. Because the bath cooks the yolks, it also adds volume to the mixture. In the north of Italy, moscato wine is often used in place of Marsala. Once cooled, the whipped egg white is sometimes added, and whipped cream for even more richness.
These are just ten classic Italian desserts with many more to discover, so what are you waiting for? Branch out and try a new Italian restaurant and see what desserts they have on offer.
Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. Marla is an accomplished pastry chef, and a master at high-altitude baking. She and her husband Fabrizio (who has also worked as a chef) teach Italian cooking classes and run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita (“beautiful mountain house”), where they are active supporters of the slow food movement.