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Pasticceria | avlxyz/Flickr
Pasticceria | avlxyz/Flickr

The Definitive Guide to Italian Pastries

Picture of Ione Wang
Updated: 27 May 2017

There’s a short story by Italo Calvino about three thieves that break into a pastry shop. Once they’re inside and surrounded by sugary delights of all kinds, however, they’re unable to resist. The three of them gorge themselves sick on all the cakes and tarts and sugary goodies. If you find yourself on the other side of an Italian pastry counter, you might find yourself sharing some of those same emotions. Here’s a guide that’ll help you identify what’s on offer.

Torrone

Egg whites are whipped up and sweetened with honey, and mixed with almonds or hazelnuts. Some are hard and brittle, while others are soft and sticky.

Amaretti

The flour of these bite-sized biscuits is ground from bitter almonds, which gives them their unique taste. They’re sweetened with plenty of sugar and baked with egg whites until soft and crumbly in the center and crunchy on the outside.

Cannoli

The cannolo comes from Sicily, and consists of a piece of dough that’s fried until crunchy. The tubular shell is then filled with a sweet, creamy filling made of smooth ricotta.

Sfogliatella

In English, this dessert might be referred to as a lobster tail, and originated in Campania. It’s a flaky, crunchy pastry that’s usually filled with sweet pastry cream, although variants exist that include chocolate.

Zabaglione

This cream is made of egg yolks, sugar, and a liqueur like cognac, rum, or sometimes Marsala. The result is rich, creamy, and totally boozy.

Cassata

This round sponge cake from Sicily is soaked in fruit juices and liqueur and filled with ricotta cream. It can have chocolate chips or candied fruit peel, and the whole thing is covered with a marzipan shell.

Frittelle

These little doughnuts are served in Venice during Carnevale season, which is a few short weeks in February and March. They’re made of a rich batter and rolled in crunchy sugar. Fillings may vary, from pastry cream to chocolate to raisins and nuts. A similar fried treat that comes from Calabria is called pignolata, but the fried dough balls are dipped in honey instead of sugar.

Tiramisu

This delectable dessert originates in the Veneto, and it’s made of ladyfingers, coffee, and mascarpone custard. The ladyfingers are dipped in coffee, layered with the sweet custard, and everything is finished off with a generous dusting of cocoa powder.

Babà

The babà is a small cake made with a rich batter that includes eggs, milk, and butter. They’re soaked in a syrup that includes a liquor like rum, and sometimes filled with whipped cream or pastry cream. In Venice, they’re sometimes called a fiamma, or flame, because they’re so wonderfully alcoholic.

Crostata

The crostata refers to all kinds of baked tarts and pies that can be either savory or sweet. Dessert crostate can be spread with apricot or blueberry jam, chocolate or decadent pistacchio cream. One of the most wonderful incarnations fills the crunchy shell with pastry cream and fresh fruit like strawberries, kiwis, and bananas.

Pandoro/Panettone/Colomba

These classic desserts are like soft, tender brioche cakes, made with a dough that includes eggs, butter, and yeast. The pandoro and panettone are made for the Christmas season, and their shape is tall and rounded at the top. The colomba is eaten at Easter, and its shape is like a dove. The cakes can include raisins, candied fruit peel, or chocolate chips.