Last Updated on September 25, 2023 by jofitzsimons
Italy is a country famous for its cuisine. From delicious pizza and pasta to world-famous cheese and award-winning wines, there’s so much to offer. But let’s not forget about Italy’s mouthwatering desserts and pastries too.
Whether it’s to accompany your morning coffee, a mid-afternoon snack, or a delicious dessert to round off a great meal, there are countless types of Italian pastries to choose from. Which makes narrowing down this list of ‘best’ an extremely difficult job.
After much deliberation and eating a lot of Italian pastries – it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it – we decided that these are the best Italian pastries that everyone needs to try at least once. And if you’re feeling creative, we’ve included some of the best Italian pastry recipes from around the web.
Every list of Italian pastries has to include the classic cannoli. Arguably Italy’s most famous dessert, cannoli can be eaten at any time of day, even for breakfast.
Cannoli are tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough filled with a sweet, creamy filling that usually contains ricotta – the popular Italian whey cheese. The ends of cannoli are sometimes sprinkled with chocolate, candied fruit, or nuts.
The Italian cream filled pastry originated from the Island of Sicily. They supposedly date back to the 9th century, while Sicily was under Arab rule. You can find cannoli in cafes and restaurants all across the world these days. But the very best are still found in their home country of Italy.
Fun fact – Cannoli is actually the plural. If you’re ordering just one, it’s a cannolo. I love them as an after dinner treat or break the rules and try them as part of your aperitivo or with a Prosecco cocktail.
Sfogliatella is a shell-shaped layered pastry, with a sweet custard-like filling made with semolina, ricotta, and candied citrus fruit. You can also find versions with other fillings such as a simple whipped cream, almond paste, or chocolate cream.
There are two main styles of sfogliatella – riccia and frolla. Riccia means “curly” and is the original version made with flaky, layered pastry. This style is best when freshly baked and hot out of the oven to get its famous crunch. Frolla features a less labour-intensive shortcrust pastry shell, so doesn’t have sfogliatella’s signature thin layers. But it’s still delicious and can be eaten hot or cold.
Sfogliatella is most commonly associated with Naples. However, it’s believed that the popular Italian pastry was actually invented by nuns at the Santa Rosa monastery on the Amalfi Coast. The recipe was somehow picked up by a pastry chef from Naples who began selling it to the public in the early 1800s.
In some English-speaking countries, such as the US, sfogliatella are also called lobster tails. Possibly because it’s one of the more difficult Italian pastry names to pronounce.
A maritozzo is an ancient delicacy from Rome consisting of a sweet brioche bun split down the middle and filled with whipped cream. It may be extremely simple, but it’s one of the most popular Italian breakfast pastries in the Lazio region.
The name maritozzo derives from the word “marito” which is Italian for “husband”. It comes from a unique tradition in 19th-century Rome, in which men would propose on the first Friday of March by presenting their future brides with an engagement ring hidden inside a maritozzo. (Is it wrong we’d probably want the pastry more than the ring?)
Maritozzo are still so popular in Rome today that the city celebrates Maritozzo Day on the first Saturday of December each year.
Bomboloni are light and fluffy deep-fried Italian doughnuts. Their name comes from the Italian word “bomba,” meaning “bomb,” to describe their small grenade-like shape.
These delicious Italian doughnuts originate from the Tuscany region. Traditional bomboloni were dusted with icing sugar and enjoyed on the beach and during carnival season.
Today, Bomboloni are made all across Italy with oozy fillings of crema pasticcera (custard creme), jam, or Nutella. They can be eaten as breakfast, a snack or as dessert.
Chiacchiere are another traditional Italian carnival pastry, consisting of strips of sweet dough that puff up slightly when fried and are served dusted with powdered sugar. Chiacchiere – also called “Angel Wings” – are known for their signature rectangular shape with two slits down the middle and crimped edges. They’re delicate, crumbly, and incredibly addictive.
Chiacchiere are one of the most famous Italian pastries enjoyed all across the country during carnival (just before lent). They can go by different names depending on the region you’re in; bugie in Liguria, frappe in Lazio, or cenci in Tuscany.
Struffoli is a type of Italian pastry made from the same simple sweetened dough as chiacchiere. But for stuffoli, the dough is rolled into small marble-sized balls then soaked in honey, cinnamon, and ground orange rind. This creates a sweet treat that’s crunchy on the outside and light on the inside. They are also sometimes referred to as honey balls.
Struffoli are traditional Italian Christmas pastries and are often served on a plate in the shape of a wreath and covered in rainbow sprinkles or dried fruit. They are believed to bring good luck around the holidays. They’re great paired with dry Prosecco (actually the sweetest of all Prosecco types) – lovely if you’re planning a festive brunch.
7. Babà al Rum
Much like their popular French counterpart “Baba au Rhum”, Italy’s Babà al Rum is a dry brioche-like sponge soaked in rum and typically shaped like a mushroom. It’s indulgent, sticky, and perfect for a boozy sweet treat any time of day.
Babà was brought to Southern Italy in the nineteenth century by French pastry chefs working in the kitchens of the rich families of Naples. It was such a big hit among the Neapolitans that it has since become a local speciality of the Italian city.
For a more extravagant dessert pastry on special occasions, Babà are cut in half, filled with pastry cream, and decorated with fruit. You can also find Babà soaked in limoncello instead of rum for a truly Neapolitan twist on the pastry.
Panettone is Italy’s most traditional Christmas pastry. The sweet cake-like bread has a tall, domed shape, a distinctively light and fluffy texture, and is packed with candied fruit and raisins. It can be enjoyed as a dessert paired with a brut prosecco, or with a coffee or hot chocolate in the morning.
Panettone originated in Milan around the 15th century and was once a luxury dessert only for the rich. Since then, it has spread across the rest of Italy and to other countries around the world to become a popular holiday staple.
The sweet bread also now comes in many different variations, such as with chocolate chips or nuts in place of fruit, or with flavours added to the dough.
9. Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Zeppole is an Italian pastry consisting of choux pastry dough filled with custard and garnished with a sprinkle of icing sugar, more custard, and sour cherries soaked in syrup. They are either baked or fried, depending on the region.
Certainly one of the prettiest types of Italian pastries, zeppole are traditionally prepared for Festa di San Giuseppe (the Feast of Saint Joseph) on March 19, which is also Italian fathers’ day.
Pasticciotto is a popular filled Italian pastry originating from the Puglia region. They consist of a simple short-crust pastry filled with egg custard and are usually eaten hot out of the oven.
The pastry is most popular in its home city of Lecce and the surrounding Salento province. However, it’s not uncommon to find them being enjoyed in cafes and coffee shops all across Puglia and wider Italy.
Traditional breakfast pasticciotto from Puglia are flavoured with vanilla or lemon custard. But you’ll also find variations such as hazelnut, chocolate, pistachio and almond for a tasty dessert or mid-afternoon snack. In Sicily, you can even find an unusual savoury version called “pasticciotti di carne” which is filled with ground veal and almonds.
Sporcamuss are another of the best Italian pastries from the Puglia region. They consist of squares of puff pastry filled with pastry cream and sprinkled with powdered icing sugar. Sporcamuss are very sweet and usually eaten as a dessert rather than for breakfast.
In the local dialect, sporcamuss means ‘dirty mouth’. The unusual name highlights the fact that it’s pretty much impossible to bite into one without getting cream and sugar all over your mouth and face. Don’t forget to grab a napkin!
That’s our guide to the best Italian pastries your must try. Got any questions or suggestions? Let us know in the comments below.
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