Sweet-toothed Italians have a long history of being spoilt for choice where confections are concerned. The variety on offer can be overwhelming, and choosing can seem like torture. Read on for a guide to navigating the sweet waters of the Italian pasticceria scene.
As with most things Italian, regionality is fierce – you aren’t likely to find babà in Brescia or baci di dama in Brindisi – but in general, these are the desserts you should be looking out for.
Strudel di mele
As the far north region of Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy has more in common with Austria than Abruzzo, it would be remiss to gloss over Italy’s take on apple strudel, a layered pastry made with unleavened dough and stuffed with an apple-dominated filling that also includes dark raisins and buttered breadcrumbs. The apples of South Tyrol – that’s German for Alto Adige – are a protected IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) product, after all, and strudel di mele is a time-honoured staple as far south as Venice.
The ubiquitous cornetto, or little horn, may seem like little more than a croissant to the untrained palate, but it’s actually an Italian riff on the Austrian Kipferl – the pastry said to be the inspiration for the treasured French pastry. At any rate, the cornetto is softer and less buttery than a croissant, and is far and away the most popular breakfast pastry across the whole of Italy. It comes in both savoury and sweet variations, the latter often filled with gooey, decadent chocolate, Nutella, pistachio cream or custard. It makes for an exquisite pairing with an espresso, macchiato or cappuccino – the Italian breakfast of champions.
Where to try: Pasticceria Dalmasso, Avigliana (Piedmont)
Baci di dama
Legend has it this beloved Piedmont treat, meaning lady’s kisses, is intrinsically linked to the House of Savoy. In 1852, King Vittorio Emanuele asked for a new sweet – with a different flavour and different shape than usual – and the royal bakers came up with two round hazelnut cookies that seem to kiss each other through a chocolate cream-filled middle. In reality, a baker in Tortona invented baci di dama in the 19th century as a way to use up all those Piedmontese hazelnuts.
Where to try: Pasticceria Dell’Agnese, Torino (Piedmont)
Like the cornetto, the Italian take on the classic doughnut is ubiquitous nationwide, though the regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna are credited with its evolution and perfection. In Tuscany, leavened dough, spruced up with a bit of lemon zest and kneaded with lard, is fried or baked and doused in sugar. The Romagnolo take sees butter replace lard, and a generous dose of custard cream, chocolate or whipped cream oozes from its interior on the first bite. True to its name, this big bomb is an explosion in your mouth.
Where to try: Pasticceria Romagna, Via Cervese, 2618, Cesena (Emilia-Romagna)
Most English-speakers mistakenly refer to this crunchy, almond-accented Tuscan delight as biscotti, which actually just means cookies in Italian. Cantucci is the correct name for these specific twice-baked oblong cookies, made from flour, yeast, honey, sugar, eggs and butter, with shelled almonds added at the end of the kneading process. Outside Italy, they often accompany an espresso, but as is so often the case, Italians do it better: they pair it with vin santo del chianti, an aged marsala or passito di pantelleria – all sweet wines that marry delightfully with the popular biscuit.
Where to try: Cafissi, Carmignano (Tuscany)
The pride and joy of the second-largest island in the Mediterranean calls on the same gluttonous pairing as New Mexico’s sopaipillas: fried dough and honey. But in Sardinia, they raise the stakes and make it a threesome with cheese. Seadas are deep-fried discs of semolina dough filled with fresh pecorino cheese and notes of lemon, then served warm, slathered in strawberry or chestnut honey. Like most icons of Italian cuisine, the beauty is in the simplicity.
Where to try: Saseada – Sebaderia Artigianale, Cagliari (Sardinia)
Unrelentingly decadent, this Apulian extravagance features a shortcrust pastry dough pumped full of a variety of fillings (lemon custard, Nutella, pistachio cream, chocolate and so on), then baked to warm and gooey perfection in an oval-shaped mould originally made from copper. Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone in Galatina, just south of Lecce, is said to have invented this pinnacle of Italian pastry craft in 1745, and you can still eat them there today. In summer, the people of Lecce pair their pasticciotto of choice with almond-milk-laced iced coffee or a cold espresso – the Salento breakfast of choice.
Where to try: Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone, Galatina (Puglia)
Of monastic origins and a Napolitano staple since 1818, sfogliatella – sometimes oddly and misleadingly referred to as lobster tails in English – are baked pastries shaped like a monk’s hood, with characteristic ridges. These stacked ridges are formed when flattened dough that’s been rolled many times over separates during the baking process. The filling (you know there has to be a filling!) is a custard-like mixture made from semolina, sugar, ricotta, eggs, candied citrus peels and a touch of cinnamon; you also might see orange-flavoured ricotta, whipped cream or almond paste.
Where to try: Sfogliatelab, Napoli (Campania)
Though rooted in Lorraine (France) with a Polish twist, the beloved babà of Campania was refined in Napoli. Polish King Stanisław I, in exile in France in the early 1700s, decided to douse Kugelhopf, a typical Alsatian cake he considered too dry, in rum syrup. He tossed in raisins, candied fruit and saffron as well. The pastry caught on and travelled, eventually shedding the added ingredients save the alcoholic punch, and landing in Napoli with Marie Antoinette. Today, the small yeast cake with a bulbous head is saturated with rum syrup and sometimes filled with whipped cream or pastry cream. Don’t eat and drive!
Where to try: Al Capriccio, Napoli (Campania)
Cannoli are one of the most well known and universally loved Italian desserts. These tubular rolls are forged from fried pastry dough made with wheat flour, wine, sugar and lard and stuffed with sheep or cow’s milk ricotta and other toppings (such as chocolate chips, pistachios or candied fruit). You’ll see pyramids of colourful cylinders piled high across pasticcerie all the way to the cannoli homeland of Sicily, but skip those – they are for tourists! A true cannolo is stuffed in the moment. Accept no substitutes!
Where to try: Caffè Sicilia, Noto (Sicily)
Thinking about holidaying in Italy? Let Culture Trip help. See our guide to the best hotels in Italy. Travel sustainably by seeing the best ecofriendly hotels in Italy, or stay in style at one of the best luxury hotels in Italy.
This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Ione Wang.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.