When it comes to delectable sweets, Italian pastries hold a special place in the hearts of dessert lovers around the world. From delicate cannoli filled with sweet ricotta cheese to flaky sfogliatelle bursting with fragrant citrus and cinnamon, Italian pastries are a celebration of flavor, texture, and tradition.
Imagine strolling down a picturesque cobblestone street in Italy, the air perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked delights, as your eyes feast upon a tantalizing array of golden pastries in a charming little bakery. Welcome to the heavenly world of Italian pastries, where each bite tells a story of tradition, artistry, and the pure joy of indulgence.
In this article, we’ll embark on a mouth-watering journey through Italy’s finest sweets, uncovering the rich history, regional specialties, and secrets behind their delectable allure. So, grab a cappuccino, sit back, and prepare to be transported to a world of sweet temptation as we explore the irresistible charm of Italian pastries.
Italian Pastries Around the World
Italian food is very popular all over the world, so it comes as no surprise that also some Italian pastries have become international staples. Whether in your favorite Italian restaurant or even in the freezer aisle of your supermarket, you surely have previously come across some of the following.
Cannoli is likely the kind of Italian pastry that is best known internationally. These delicious rolls of fried pastry dough are filled with a sweet cream that is made with ricotta, the well-known Italian cream cheese. Their ends, where the filling is exposed, are sprinkled with chocolate, dried fruits, or chopped nuts.
The name, which is actually in the plural form, the singular being cannolo, translates to “little tube” – a straightforward description that hardly does their deliciousness justice. No matter where you live, your local Italian restaurant probably offers cannoli, as might to bakeries and stores focusing on pastries or desserts.
Of course, in Italy you are more likely to come across those that are freshly prepared. When you walk past a shop window and see only the empty cannoli tubes displayed, this is a good sign – it means that the filling is added fresh when you order!
Something else that has taken the world by storm is this sweet bread that is usually eaten around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It is made of yeast flour that contains dried fruits and raisins. In supermarkets, you will often find panettone in packaging that reflects the festivities of the season.
These filled dough balls are called “little bombs” due to their shape which looks a bit like old-fashioned bombs or grenades, with the filling leaking from the hole at the top taking the place of the fuse. They are related to other filled doughnuts like the Austrian krapfen or the German berliner, but in contrast to them, where the filling is inserted from the side, bomboloni are filled from the top, making the filling visible.
They can be filled with jam, custard, or chocolate. Bomboloni even hold a place in pop culture with the singer-songwriter Gianna Nannini’s 1996 song of the same name, which also gave its name to the album it appears on.
Italian Pastries For Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
A typical Italian breakfast is usually surprisingly small. Mostly, it consist of a coffee drink, like espresso, or cappuccino, and any kind of bread, pastry, or biscuit on the side. Breakfast in Italy is not a long, drawn-out affair – often, you would just have some nibbles on the go that give you just enough of a quick burst of energy to start the day. It is also most often something sweet.
When you come from a culture where breakfast is large and primarily savory (looking at you, Full English Breakfast!), this can come quite as a surprise. A breakfast can, for example, consist of just a cappuccino with a couple of biscotti. Cornettos – a pastry similar to a croissant – are also often popular for breakfast, eaten plain or with butter or jam. You might also want to begin your day with a pasticiotti, a cream-filled tart that goes perfectly with a bitter drink like an espresso.
The pastry and drink are often accompanied by whatever fresh fruit is currently in season.
Lunch is a pretty important meal in Italy. It is an opportunity to take a break from your busy day and catch up with friends or family. An ideal Italian lunch consist of three courses: a primo, usually a pasta dish, a second, which tends to be a meat dish, as well as “contorni”, which are sides that are usually made of vegetables. Admittedly, in today’s busy lifestyle, a lot of people do not have the time for an expansive lunch.
As a quick lunch, panini are pretty popular, the Italian version of sandwiches. They are made from focaccia and often topped with high-quality ingredients like prosciutto or mozzarella. Aside from focaccia, pastries or other baked goods do not play a big role at an Italian lunch table.
Dinner is usually eaten relatively late in Italy – think any time between 8pm and 10pm. This is another opportunity for the family to come together. It has largely the same courses as the lunch, with aperitifs before the main meal, as well as dessert, or dolce, at the end – this is when it is the pastries’ time to shine!
Enjoy a millesfoglie, a tiramisu, or any kind of cake or strudel. When you want to accompany your dessert with coffee, it is important to keep in mind that coffee is generally drunken without milk in the afternoon in Italy, Keep your lattes and cappuccinos for breakfast, now is the time for a (slightly sweetened) espresso.
In general, aside from breakfast, Italian pastries are not a necessary component of a meal. Very often they are eaten as a snack in between meals – the time between lunch, which is usually served around 1pm or 2pm, and dinner is quite long, after all! You can order pastries at bakeries of cafes for a coffee break to take a minute out of your day to focus on the good things in life: flaky pastry dough, crunchy nuts, soft custard, and good coffee.
Top 30 Italian Pastries
The name of this dessert means “little pumpkin” and refers to the pumpkin-shaped mold in which it is prepared. Actually, the shape is inspired by the dome of Florence’s Dome – if you travel to city of this treat’s origin, you might get the chance to eat a little dome while looking at its big counterpart!
This dessert is served chilled or semi-frozen. It consists of cream or mousse, sometimes also ice cream, surrounded by dough that has been soaked in alchermes, an Italian liqueur.
This is a relatively simple but tasty dessert that is usually eaten around the carnival. They are fried balls of sweet dough, their name refers to their shape which looks quite similar to chestnuts.
They come traditionally from the Emilia Romagna region in Italy but are now prepared all over the country with small local variations. These days, they can be baked or fried, and various things like ricotta, anise, or alchermes can be added to the dough to give it a special twist.
Struffoli are another dessert that consists of fried dough balls, but they are not the same as castagnole! For starters, instead of being a carnival treat, they are usually eaten during Christmas time. This is why you will often find them stacked on a plate in a shape that resembles a wreath. They are also a bit smaller than castagnole.
Most commonly, they are soaked in honey and decorated with colorful sprinkles, making them extra sweet and pretty to look at. Sometimes, Struffoli are also mixed with cinnamon and bits of orange rind, a combination of flavors that is associated with Christmas all over the world.
Budino Di Riso
This is the Italian version of rice pudding, a dish for which many countries have their own specific way of preparing and serving it. In this case, the rice pudding is forms the center of a tart made from shortcrust pastry dough.
Tuscan budino de riso includes lemon zest for an extra refreshing taste. You can eat this treat at any time of the day – in the morning with a coffee it is a deliciously sweet breakfast, in the evening it is enjoyed after dinner with sweet wine.
One of the most beautiful of Italian desserts, this shell-shaped pastry from Campania has a very light and crispy texture that comes from its countless layers of thin dough. It can be filled with various things, popular are almond paste or orange-flavored ricotta.
A classic sfogliatella, also called sfogliatella ricca (ricca means curly and refers to its texture), is best enjoyed warm and fresh out of the oven. There is also another variety, called sfogliatella frolla. This one is quicker and easier to make, but it consists of fewer layers and does not have the famous texture.
This pastry has its origins in the early 18th century at the Santa Rosa monastery on the Amalfi coast. Back then, it was filled with custard cream and black cherries, which had been preserved in syrup. Almost a century later, a pastry chef from Naples, Pasquale Pintauro, obtained this recipe and made it known to a wider audience.
This dish is as simple as it is popular: it consists of a brioche bun filled with whipped cream. This sweet treat is a popular breakfast pastry in the Lazio region. It’s name comes from the Italian word for husband, marito- a “maritozzo” is an “almost-husband.” Allegedly, in Rome in the 19th century, men would propose to their girlfriends with an engagement ring hidden in a maritozzo – this sure makes you wonder how many rings were accidentally swallowed during that time!
The original recipe for the buns dates back to Ancient Rome and it used to be a simple recipe containing eggs, honey, butter, salt, and flour. Today, there are many different ways to make Maritozzo. There are even savory varieties filled with pesto or tomatoes.
Historically, this bun gained a lot of popularity during the Middle Ages, because the church allowed it to be eaten during Lent, the traditional period of fasting. Today, these pastries are still very popular in the Italian capital. So popular that on the first of December, Maritozzo day is celebrated, and many restaurants and bakeries pay homage to this dish.
Fiocco di Neve
The pastries where invented by a Neapolitan called Pasticceria Popella. They are called snowflakes, and their soft melt-in-your=mouth quality, as well as their immaculate round shape, make clear why this name fits so well! They are small balls of brioche dough filled with milk cream and dusted with a sprinkle of icing sugar.
The original recipe is kept a secret its inventors, but if you don’t make it to Naples, do not worry – there are many recipes that you can find online and which do not require you to be a professional baker.
These are squares made of puff pastry that are filled with cream and dusted with icing sugar. This is a dessert from the Puglia region. Traditionally, you would heat up the squares in the oven before you add the cream filling, but they taste just as good eaten cold. Since the cream is added after the baking process, you can always spontaneously decide to make some puff pastry squares if you find you have leftover cream from another recipe.
The translation of the name means “dirty your mouth,” and as the name says, it is basically impossible to eat them without getting cream and sugar all over your face! While you won’t look elegant eating them, their creamy deliciousness is more than worth it. Just make sure you have a napkin at your side!
Not to be confused with the ice cream brand of the same name, this pastry is very similar to the French croissant. Both the cornetto and the croissant are inspired by the Austrian Kipferl, which is made of yeast dough instead of pastry though, though.
A cornetto is a crescent-shaped pastry that has been brushed with egg yolk and baked golden brown. Like a croissant, you can eat it with jam or chocolate cream. It is also very delicious just eaten plain, especially when it comes fresh out of the oven.
In Italian cafes, you can order a cornetto and a coffee for breakfast, and you usually have the choice of whether you want to eat it sitting at a table or standing at the bar. Often, it is cheaper to eat it standing up. This just goes to show that the Italians are truly very serious about their quick breakfast.
Baci di Dama
The name of this cookie translate’s to “the lady’s kisses.” It consists of two cookies which are held together by a chocolate cream filling. Traditionally, they are made with hazelnut cookies, but there are many other varieties, for example, pistachio cookies, or chocolate cookies with white cream or chocolate filling.
These cookies come originally from the Piedmont region and were established in the 19th century to make use of the hazelnuts of which there grow so many in this area.
Crostata Ricotta e Visciole
A crostata is the Italian version of a pie, and this one is filled with ricotta and sour cherries. The mild and sweet flavor of the ricotta mixes wonderfully with the sourness of the cherries! Another Italian dish that is similar to pie is the torta.
The difference between torta and crostata is that a crostata usually has a chunky filling – in this variety, the cherries stay whole. In contrast, for a torta, the filling is made of blended ingredients. Both tortas and crostatas have sweet as well as savory variations. Savory crostatas can be filled with meat or vegetables, as well as fish and other kinds of seafood.
These deceptively simple butter cookies from the island of Burano are perfect to be dipped into coffee or tea. It is said that they were traditionally baked by local women as a snack for their husbands to take on fishing expeditions since these cookies stay fresh for a long time.
These cookies are slim and usually baked in the shape of a crescent moon, a circle, or a backward S. They can be made from a very simple dough of butter, flour, sugar, and eggs, but often, lemon zest is added to give them a fruity zing.
Some recommend putting a couple of these cookies in your drawer or closet because it gives your clothes a fresh and sweet smell. This depends, of course, on whether you trust yourself not to get up at night for a convenient snack you do not have to go into the kitchen for.
This pastry often looks like a closed tart made from short-crust dough and comes with a variety of fillings. Creamy fillings include lemon-flavored ricotta or different kinds of custard, but pasticciotto can also be filled with fruit preserves or Nutella.
A savor local variety in the town of Patti in Sicily even contains meat: A pasticciotto di carne is filled with ground veal and almonds. Like the sweet versions, this meaty variety is also topped with sugar! The combination of sweet and savory is quite central to the Italian kitchen, since unusual flavor combinations often have the tendency to balance each other out in ways you would not initially expect.
This is a very special dish, which comes from the rich cuisine of Roman-Jewish culture. Delicious enough to seduce a pope, this dish is not really a pizza like its name might suggest, but rather a really big cookie. The dough includes raisins, candied ginger, toasted almonds, marzipan, maraschino cherries, and pine nuts. It is sweet and salty at the same time.
A very famous kosher bakery that offers this dish is the Pasticeria il Boccione in the Roman Ghetto. The pizza ebraica that is made at this place is even a beloved dessert of the retired pope Benedict XVI. If you want to try it at this place, you will have to be very patient or a very early riser, since the hour-long queue to this shop starts to form in the early mornings.
This is a small yeast cake with a bulbous head which gives it its characteristic mushroom shape. It has been invented in Lorraine, France, but now is very popular in Naples, and, of course, the city has found various ways to put a unique spin on it.
A popular version is baba al rum, where the cake is soaked in a syrup made with rum or another hard liquor. Sometimes, it is filled with whipped cream or another type of creamy filling, for example, custard.
Soft Amaretti Biscuits
Their crisp and crunchy counterparts are a bit more well-known, but you should not miss out on the softer varian for a special treat! They are called amaretti morbidi, but don’t worry, this doesn’t mean they are morbid – “morbido/a” is just the Italian word for soft.
These little cookies are very tender on the inside, which, in combination with the almond flavor, will make you feel as if you were enjoying little balls of marzipan.
These biscuits are made from a simple, fat-free dough that only contains flour, sugar, and eggs. Like other famous Italian biscuits, biscotti, camporelli, too, are baked twice. Sometimes, they are glaced, but they are good to eat just as they are.
Traditionally, they come from the Novara region in northwest Italy, but nowadays they are made and sold all over the world. They can be eaten alone or with ice cream, and they are also the biscuits that form the base of a good tiramisu.
This pastry is traditional in the regions of Abruzzo, Apulia, and Calabria, where it is a typical Christmas treat. It is covered with lots of confectioners’ sugar, which makes it look like a little snow-covered hill. The short-crust pastry shell is filled with different things depending on the region. Popular ingredients of the filling are toasted almonds, cinnamon, and fruit jam.
These are simply thin sheets of fried pastry dough that are sprinkled with powdered sugar. They are popular around carneval and are eaten traditionally in the period just before Lent begins. Varieties of this exist in many countries, and the difference is usually the way in which the dough is shaped. Sometimes they are twirled or rolled up, but classic Italian chiacchiere are squares with two slits cut in.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe
As the name says, these pastries are traditionally eaten on Saint Joseph’s Day, a catholic holiday. On this day, not only bakeries and cafes offer this treat, but it is also sold from stalls on the street. In their various varieties, zeppole are also very popular year-round and not only a treat for observing Catholics.
A zeppole is a fried dough ball covered with powdered sugar and usually eaten while still fresh and hot. They can be topped or filled with custard, chocolate, or a butter-and-honey mixture. Traditional zeppole for Saint Joseph’s Day are filled with pastry cream and topped with a single Italian syrup cherry in the center.
This is a pull-apart bread made from balls of brioche dough, similar to what you might know as monkey bread. Every single ball also contains a filling of pastry cream or chocolate cream.
There are savory versions of this dish, too. In Naples, danubio is traditionally filled with ham and cheese.
This traditional cake from Sicily is likely one of the sweetest desserts you will ever try! Its base is a round sponge cake that has been soaked in juice or liquor, and which is here layered with ricotta and candied fruit. This center is covered with a shell of marzipan and then decorated with pink and green icing in elaborate designs.
There is also a gelato (ice cream flavor) inspired by this cake, which contains dried fruit and nuts.
Strudel di Mele
Inspired by the Viennese Apfelstrudel (apple strudel), this dish is very popular in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region.
It is basically a long tube of unleavened dough wrapped around a filling of apples, grapes, and cinnamon. It is often eaten warm and served with ice cream or vanilla sauce. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, this is the perfect cozy dessert for an autumn or winter afternoon.
These ring-shaped cookies are typical of the Molise region in southern Italy. The simple dough can be quickly whipped up with pantry staples like flour and sugar, and for moisture either wine (for ciambelline al vino) or olive oil (then, they are called ciambelline all’olio).
In case the wine in the dough is not enough for you, some people like to dip these cookies in wine while eating!
The similarities in the names are obvious: this is the Italian version of the French Millefeuille. The name means “thousand sheets” since this pastry consists of lots of layers. Puff pastry and cream are layered and build a delicious crispy-creamy concoction. Something that differentiates the Italian variety from its French counterpart is that in the Italian way the pastry often also contains one or more layers of sponge cake.
There are also savory varieties of millesfoglie in which the puff pastry sheets are layered with spinach, pesto, or cheese.
Cantucci, also known as biscotti, are one of the most well-known Italian treats. These almond biscuits are twice-baked and therefore very dry and crunchy. This makes them so popular for dipping into a drink. While you might know them best for dipping in coffee, traditionally, they are dipped into Vin Santo, an Italian dessert wine.
Regional versions of these cookies can be made with other nuts, like pine nuts, instead of almonds.
This wonderfully moist cake originated, as the name says, on the island Capri. There are many variations to the dough, but what makes it so soft and moist is the flourless dough of softened butter, sugar, and egg yolks.
Its origin story is disputed, but some say, that it was invented when a chef tried to bake an almond cake but forgot the flour.
Schiacciata all’ Uva
This grape focaccia is savory and sweet at the same time. It is traditional to Tuscany and is usually prepared in September, since that is when the grapes are ripe. It is closely connected with the wine harvest in the fall and tastes the best when made with sweet wine grapes.
The dough is not sweet at all and all the sweetness comes from the grapes, even though some people like sprinkling a few tablespoons of sugar over the focaccia before baking. Its lack of added sweetness makes it perfect for those times when you don’t feel like having something sweet but still don’t want to skip dessert!
This rural Sardinian dish is made from wheat or semolina dough with a cheese filling. Typically, young Pecorino Sardo cheese is used, which has a slightly sweet taste. Searda are served drizzled with honey and they, too, straddle the line between sweet and savory.
A savory pastry, mbriulata is a traditional dish from the small village of Milena in Sicily. It is a puff pastry that is stuffed with potatoes, olives, cheese, and chopped pork, or, more traditionally, pork rinds. Historically, this pastry has been prepared by housewives for their family members who had to spend the day out in the fields, since Milena is a farming community. This dish stays fresh all day and gives you lots of energy for hard work.
It can easily be made vegetarian by leaving out the pork so that there is a stronger focus on the flavorful olives.
These mouth-watering Italian pastries show a side of Italian cuisine that is a bit removed from the pasta and pizza dishes that dominate many Italian-style restaurants. Maybe your city has a specialized bakery that focuses on desserts and pastries where you might find some of those – other than that, maybe a foodie trip to Italy it might be required!
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