Italian Desserts: 14 Sweets You Have to Try

Here’s your go-to guide on Italy’s best desserts.

Italian desserts can be a mind-boggling adventure of unusual ingredients and hard-to-say words. But at their best, they’re simple, home-made sweets with just a few fresh ingredients. So, read on for what to try on your trip to Italy, what they mean, and how to pronounce them!

Cantucci

Italian dessert Cantucci
Italian cantucci with Vin Santo

Cantucci are delicious crunchy almond cookies. They get their extra crunch from being cooked twice. In fact another name for these and other biscuits in Italian is ‘biscotti

Want to know why a biscuit is called a biscuit? Well, another name for these and other biscuits in Italian is ‘biscotti‘ which is Italian for ‘cooked twice’!

The best thing about these cookies is that as an Italian dessert they are meant to be dunked. But not in tea… in a sweet wine called Vin Santo!

How to say Cantucci?

  • Cantucci – “Can – Toochy” 🔊

Panna Cotta

Pots of panna cotta with red berry couli and strawberries on a white background
Panna Cotta by Natural Chef Carolyn Nicholas

Panna Cotta literally means ‘cooked cream’ and combines fresh cream, milk, sugar and gelatine to create a creamy jelly-like pudding.

This queen of Italian desserts can be customized in so many different ways it almost becomes a different dish each time altogether. Drizzle it with fruit compôte or sprinkle wild berries, smother in chocolate or swirl with caramel – the choice is yours!

How to say Panna Cotta?

  • Panna Cotta – “Pannna Cotta” (This one is like it looks, but to sound extra authentic try lingering on the ‘n’s!) 🔊

Tiramisù

Glass ramekins of individual tiramisù dusted with cocoa powder
Tiramisù pots by silviarita

Tiramisù is the classic Italian dessert of Marscapone cream cheese with sponge and coffee, sprinkled in cocoa. It’s the perfect pick-me-up after a long day or a heavy meal thanks to it’s combination of good Italian espresso and Masarla sweet wine. In fact, I meant that literally because the name ‘tira-mi-sú’ translates as ‘pick me up’!

Most good trattorias will have a home made tiramisu in their kitchen, so if you don’t see it on the menu, just try asking! Everybody claims to make the best version and we’ve seen some very creatively presented formats from little ramekins to decomposed trios.

Debates continue to rage about whether to whip egg whites in with the marscapone, or how many layers of sponge – actually they are the cookies ladyfingers (known as Savoiardi in Italian) which become like a sponge when softened with liquid – and depending on your chosen choice of liquor, you’ll find variants to the traditional Sicilian Marsala wine to drench it in.

So if you want your coffee and dessert in one go, get a tiramisù!

How to pronounce ‘tiramisù’?

  • Tiramisù – ‘tih-ra-me-zoo🔊 

Gelato

A cone of pink ice cream or gelato in an Italian street
Photo by Juliana Malta

Gelato is no ordinary ice cream. Italian gelato is lighter, lower in fat and sugar than normal ice cream and if you go to the right places, is made with only high quality fresh ingredients. In fact, gelato isn’t made with cream, but traditionally has egg whites churned in for extra silkiness!

However, if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, most places have a range of egg-free and dairy-free gelato flavours to choose from. An Italian classic is pistachio gelato, or why not try ‘ricotta e fichi’ – ricotta cheese and figs, yum!

How to say ‘gelato’?

  • gelato – (I’m sure you already know this one!) ‘je-lah-toe’ 🔊

Cannoli

Cannoli, Italian pastries with ricotta and icing sugar
Image by dna_xdm

Cannoli, or Cannolo – which is the singular, are a typical Sicilian sweet of a tube of crips pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta. Their ends are often sprinkled with ground pistachios, decorated with candied fruit or dipped in dark chocolate. Yes please!

Sicily might be their homeland but you’ll find these in any Italian city. Although not usually on the dessert menu and they make a great sweet snack during the day!

How to say ‘cannolo’?

  • Cannolo – ‘Can-no-low’ 🔊

Castagnaccio

A castagnaccio cake decorated with pine nuts and rosemary
Castagnaccio – an accidentally vegan traditional cake

This Florentine speciality is made from Chestnut flower and filled with raisins, pine nuts, walnuts and flavoured with rosemary. Castagnaccio is a Tuscan dessert or cake and it’s name comes from a diminutive form of the Italian for Chestnut – ‘Castagno‘.

In fact the ingredients for this delicious cake are so simple it happens to be vegan, and so lactose-free as well as gluten free!

To try your hand at making your own Castagnaccio we’ve got an easy recipe for you:

  • chestnut flour – 17 oz
  • pine nuts – 3.5 oz
  • walnuts – 3.5 oz
  • currants – 2.5 oz
  • olive oil – 1.3 fl. oz
  • water – 22 fl. oz
  • a pinch of salt
  • a few sprigs of fresh rosemary

Soak the currents in cold water for ten minutes

Roughly chop the walnuts into pieces (if not already broken) and pick the rosemary leaves off the stem

Sieve the chestnut flour into a large bowel and gradually add the water stirring as you go until you get a homogenous mixture

Add the nuts, pine nuts and salt to the mixture saving a few to decorate

Pour into an oiled wide based pan sprinkling a few nuts, currants and rosemary leaves on top and drizzle with the olive oil

Cook at 380 degrees F for about 35 minutes until the top browns with cracks and the nuts are golden

There you are! You made your very own Tuscan dessert!

How to pronounce ‘castagnaccio’?

  • Castagnaccio – ‘Cas-sta-nya-cho’ 🔊

Crostata

A large jam tart -crostata- with latticed shortcrust pastry
Crostata by gate74

Crostata is an Italian favourite…but is essentially a giant jam tart. Roll out some shortcrust pastry, top it with (preferably homemade) jam of your choice, decorate and bake!

If you’re going to give this one a try yourself, you can either try the traditional lattice pastry topping, or you could experiment with your own design.

It’s not fancy, and like a lot of Italian cuisine, requires very few, simple ingredients, but when ordering dessert in Italy, next time why not try a slice of Crostata. Often you’ll find apricot or strawberry fillings.

How to pronounce Crostata?

  • Crostata – “Cross-starter” 🔊

Sorbetto al Limone

A pile of Sicilian lemons
Lemons by Richard John

If you’ve had a really heavy meal and are feeling too full for dessert, fear not!

A great Italian dessert that can also act as a pallet cleanser if Lemon sorbet. Typically, it will be a little runnier than what you might expect and often comes served in a champagne (prosecco) flute, with a straw to sip through.

The better the lemons, the better the taste in this one and ideally it should be made from just lemons, sugar and water. Although often Italians add egg whites for an extra silky texture.

So, next time you’re bursting at the seams but don’t want to miss out on the sweets, calmly sip a sorbetto al limone while you watch your companions struggling over their tiramisù.

How to pronounce ‘sorbetto al limone’?

  • Sorbetto al Limone – ‘Sor-betto, al, li-moan-ay’ 🔊

Panettone

A panettone with raisins and candied fruit with a cut slice
Panettone by gate74

Panettone is what every family has on the table at Christmas time. It’s somewhere between a bread and a sponge, a bit like brioche. But it’s big, light, airy and sweet and laden with candied peel and currants.

Although originally from Milan, it’s now a nationwide favourite at Christmas time and it’s estimated Italian families consume 5.5 pounds of Panettone each year!

Now, with that said, did I mention the Easter version?

How to say ‘Panettone’?

  • Panettone – ‘pan-net-own-ee’ 🔊 

Colomba

Wrapped colomba cakes with ribbons in a pastry shop
Wrapped colomba cakes by Phantasiae

Colomba Pasquale, or Colomba di Pasqua, is the Easter version of Panettone and means ‘Easter Dove’ because of it’s (vaguely) dove-like shape.

The Colomba, the traditional Italian Easter cake is very similar to Panettone, a deep fluffy broiche, but without the raisins and topped with candied almonds and pearl sugar.

You know when Easter is coming in Italy when all the bakeries and pastry shops start stocking fancily wrapped cakes with abundant decorations!

These days you’ll find all sorts of variants, from chocolate to pistachio!

How to say ‘colomba’?

  • Colomba – ‘Col-lom-bah’ 🔊

Zabaione

pastries filled with zabaione custard decorated with red currants
Photo by Bruna Branco

Zabaione, or Zabaglione – that’s custard to you and me. I know, it’s quite a complicated word for something so simple.

But in Classic Italian style, they couldn’t help adding a little fortified wine to the mix. Whip the best egg yolks with powder sugar and vin santo or Marsala wine and you get the very smooth yellow versatile Zabaione. Enjoy alone dusted with cocoa powder or try with fruits and pastry.

How do you pronounce ‘zabaione’?

  • Zabaione – ‘Za-bye-own-ee’ 🔊 

Sfogliatelle

Italian pastries will custard and chocolate - sfogliatelle
sfogliatelle by Vanenitalia

Talking of pastry. You might want to get your mouth around this word. Sfogliatelle. The name refers to the many layers or sheets of crispy pastry in these delightful desserts. Filled with custard, cream or chocolate spread, they have a delectable crunch as you bite into them and are incredibly more-ish.

As you can see from the picture, in some parts, such as Sicily, they are known as ‘Aragosta’ referring to the little lobster whose shell they resemble.

They might look innocent but this Italian sweet pastry is more filling than it looks, and beware of a mess once you bite in!

How to say ‘sfogliatelle’?

  • Sfogliatelle – ‘Sfo-yli-a-tell-leh’ 🔊

Zuppa Inglese

Trifle in a sundae glass
zuppa inglese by Bruna Branco

Zuppa inglese translates to ‘English soup’. It’s not a soup, but I suppose some food snobs might take one look at a trifle and call it something of a soup! Zuppa inglese incorporates layers of sponge, fruit and custard.

This might sound very much like a trifle but in fact it’s origin is disputed, as some claim the name to come from the Italian word ‘inzuppare‘, to soak or sop, as becomes the sponge in this very indulgent dessert.

Regardless of its name and invention, zuppa inglese remains on many Italian dessert menus and perhaps you can give it a try on your next meal.

How to say ‘zuppa inglese’?

  • Zuppa Inglese – ‘Zooppa in-glaze-zeh’ 🔊 

Torta della Nonna

a slice of cake with pine nuts on top
Photo by Elli

Last but not least, is the Torta della Nonna! This is the Grandmother’s cake!

As the name suggests it’s a classic, super comforting Italian dessert consisting of sponge (butter cake) and custard, topped with pine nuts!

How to say ‘Torta della Nonna’?

  • Torta della Nonna – you say it like you see it! (Don’t forget to roll your ‘r’s and linger on the double ‘n’s!) 🔊 

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