Last Updated on September 8, 2023 by Jo Fitzsimons
I think we can all agree that Italian food is definitely one of the best cuisines in the world – pizza, pasta, indulgent lasagna. There really is only one thing that tops it, and that’s Italian dessert. There’s a definite theme to the kinds of sweet dishes served in Italy – creamy, chocolatey and often with a good dose of espresso blended in – Italian desserts tend to be rich. But there are lighter flavours too, thanks to the abundance of fresh fruits in Italy.
Whether you’re looking for something to serve after an Italian themed dinner or you’re heading to Italy with an eating list as long as your arm, make sure to try out these Italian desserts.
Tiramisu is a classic layer cake that offers up coffee soaked sponge and cream topped with bitter dark cocoa powder. The cake part of tiramisu comes from ladyfingers, crunchy British biscuits that turn into a sponge when soaked in liquid. They’re also known as savoiardi in Italian and boudoirs in French. Soaked in strong espresso, the ladyfingers provide the classic coffee flavour of tiramisu. Meanwhile, the cream layers are made of egg, sugar mascarpone cheese, a thick Italian cream cheese). Tiramisu was invented in the city of Treviso, near Venice and the dessert has gone on to become one of the most famous Italian desserts eaten in restaurants around the world.
If you want to try the original Tiramisu, head to Le Beccheri in Trevio. There are two versions to try – the classic and a more contemporary version. Fun fact: Tirami su means “cheer me up” in Italian.
Wander through any popular tourist city in Italy and you’ll find trays of gelato piled high with an array of tempting flavours. As desserts go, gelato, a frozen dairy-based dessert made from a combination of cream, milk, sugar, and air, is very simple, yet it always manages to hit the spot. What’s the difference between Italian gelato and ice-cream? Gelato contains more milk than cream, doesn’t contain egg yolks (which some ice creams do) and is churned with less air, making it more rich and dense. Gelato also generally has fewer calories. Two scoops, please!
If you’re looking for some classic Italian gelato flavours to try, here are some of the most popular: chocolate, stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings), pistachio, nocciola (hazelnut), fior di latte (vanilla) and strawberry.
3. Panna Cotta
Believed to have originated from the northern Piedmont region of Italy, Panna Cotta is another dessert that’s become a global sensation. And it’s another pretty simple recipe. Cream and sugar are blended and heated. Gelatin (the ingredient used to set jelly) is then added before the liquid is poured into a mould to set. The result: the cute pudding shape we’ve all come to know and love.
Traditionally, caramel was added to the base of the mould to give a rich gooey topping when the panna cotta was served. And the creaminess pairs very well with dry Prosecco. Today, you’ll find a more extensive and elaborate range of panna cotta flavours with everything from coffee and chocolate and fruit flavours added to the cream or drizzled on top. Fruit berries are a particularly popular panna cotta flavour and work well for summer desserts.
A northern Italian sweet from Turin, Gianduiotto are delicate yet indulgent chocolates that have a distinctive triangular log shape and come wrapped in individual leaves of gold foil. The chocolate is very Italian, flavoured with hazelnut. In fact, Gianduiotto comes from a special Italian style of chocolate called Gianduia that includes a 30% blend of hazelnut paste. You’re probably already familiar with this blend if you’ve ever eaten the wildly popular Italian spread, Nutella.
Gianduiotto is the grown up version that is a delight to serve after dinner if you’re making a multi-course Italian meal, and think a small plate of Italian chocolates will be a lighter option for dessert. Our Prosecco tour guide Oriana sometimes makes Gianduia at home (yes, she’s a genius) and I’ve never tasted anything so good.
5. Biscotti and Vin Santo
Italian dessert doesn’t need to involve a big fuss and biscotti served with Vin Santo proves it. I first tried this dessert in Florence (it hails from Tuscany) and it definitely wins for simplicity as an after dinner sweet treat. Biscotti, also known as cantucci, are small, long cookies (biscuits) made from almonds, flour, eggs and sugar.
What transforms this brittle biscuit into a dessert is the addition of the sweet Italian dessert wine, Vin Santo. Made using white grapes in the Tusucan region, Vin Santo is typically sweet, similar to a Spanish sherry. How to eat cantucci and vin santo? Dip your biscuit in your drink. Promise, it’s allowed. The Italians do it all the time. Definitely an upgrade on cookies and milk.
Tip: Biscotti is also a popular Italian breakfast cookie. But for that meal, you dunk it in your cappuccino.
Affogao al cafe, as it’s more fully know, translates as drowned in coffee, which is a very accurate description for this simple Italian dessert. A two-ingredient recipe, affogato includes a scoop of vanilla gelato, fior di latte, with a shot of hot espresso poured over the top. This looks especially impressive if you serve it in a wide Champagne coup or cocktail glass. Add a splash of Italian almond liqueur, Amaretto, if you want to add extra depth to your dessert.
Tartufo is a show-stopper. In short, it’s an ice-cream bombe with multiple layers including a molten chocolate sauce core wrapped in hazelnut gelato. On the outside, the bombe is liberally dusted in bitter cocoa powder. Or, more recently, a hard chocolate shell. The recipe originated in Pizzo, Calabria, in Southern Italy. Today, you can find many variations on the original recipes with fruit sauces replacing the chocolate centre and even frozen fruit and nuts concealed inside. While tartufo is a pretty elaborate dessert to make at home, it can be prepared ahead of time and it will definitely wow your guests. Otherwise, order it in a restaurant and let the chef do the hard work.
Looking for a dessert that doesn’t include chocolate or gelato? How about panforte? This is one of the oldest Italian desserts on the list, believed to date back to 13th century Tuscany. Panforte is a traditional Italian Christmas dessert made from wrapping fruit, nuts and spices in a gooey blend of sugar, honey and flour. Panforte has a consistency similar to florentine biscuits but is much more cake-like in thickness.
On a hot summers day, this is nothing more refreshing than a dish filled with sweet, icy granita. Originating from Siciliy and most commonly served in Southern Italy, granita is a mix of ice, sugar and fruity flavours. Unlike French sorbet or American sherbet, granita has a rougher texture that is less heavily blended, making it closer in nature to a shave ice. While you can add whichever flavours take your fancy, the most common Italian granita flavours are mulberry, lemon and, of course, coffee. Granita is an excellent dairy free dessert.
10. Zuppa Ingles
Zuppa Ingles is an Italian twist on British trifle. Similar to Tiramisu (and trifle), zuppa ingles starts with ladyfingers which are soaked in the Italian liqueur, Alchermes. Flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, Alchermes gives zuppa ingles a very distinctive flavour, but also colour, since the liqueur is bright red. Crema pasticciera (custard), is layered on top of the soaked ladyfingers. After a few layers, the dessert is topped with whipped cream and dusted with chocolate. It’s a bright, festive dessert if you’re a fan of the liqueur spices.
11. Torta Caprese
Torta caprese is a flourless chocolate cake made using almonds, butter, sugar, egg yolks and chocolate. So named after the island of Capris where this cake was invented, torta caprese is a light, airy cake that is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Since it is flourless, its naturally gluten free and much lighter than your average flour-dense Italian cakes.
Zabalglione, also known as zabione in Italy, is a comforting, sweet creamy dessert that’s often served in a decorative glass. The dessert is made using egg yolks, sugar, cream and sweet wine, all whipped up to make an airy, spoonable custard. Marsala wine from Sicily is the most commonly used wine though brandy is often substituted to make a more boozy version. If you think zabaglione even more, (ideally with more Marsala wine), it becomes similar to an egg nog making it a perfect Christmas dessert. Many restaurants now serve zabaglione with fruit but we prefer the authentic Italian flavours of vanilla and Marsala.
13. Torta Della Nonna
Meaning grandmother’s cake, Torta della Nonna is a Tuscan cake that is similar to a custard tart. Typically served after the traditional Italian Sunday family meal, torta della nonna has a sweet, short-crust pastry case that’s filled with custard. A mix of confectioners icing sugar and pine nuts are usually sprinkled on top.
Profiteroles are choux pastry puffs filled with sweet cream and typically coated in soft chocolate sauce. They are a light and airy dessert that are fun to serve to a crowd (watch them disappear). But aren’t they a French dessert? The history of profiteroles is an interesting one. While profiteroles were technically first invented and served in France, they were actually created by the Italian chef, Panterelli, who accompanied Catherine de Medici from her home in Florence to the French court. So, there you have it. Profiteroles are Italian, which is why you’ll see them on many Italian restaurant menus.
Cannoli are tube-shaped shells of dough that are deep fried then stuffed with a creamy, sweet filling typically made from ricotta cheese. Cannoli are often flavoured with fruit, chocolate chips or nuts. Although they are more of an Italian pastry than a classic Italian dessert, we think they can be eaten any time. They especially make a great addition to a light lunch or afternoon tea that has an Italian slant.
So, that’s our guide to the best classic Italian desserts. What’s your favourite? Leave a comment below.