What’s not to love about Italian food? From pasta to pizza and everything in between, Italian food has it all. And then there are the incredible traditional Italian desserts. Here are some of the best Italian dessert recipes, all of which you can make at home.
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What Is Italian Food Really?
For us, it’s the best food in the world. Growing up in New Jersey we were exposed to Italian food at an early age. Our first trip to Italy in 2000 opened our eyes to a whole new level of Italian food. And even after 20+ trips to Italy our love of all things Italian food continues to grow.
With a handful of regions still yet to explore, we can’t help but head back to our favorite region, Emilia-Romagna. Considered the best culinary region in Italy, its capital city of Bologna is a must for any food lover. For us, no trip to Emilia-Romagna is complete until we enjoy authentic lasagna, proper ragu, and of course some mortadella and Parma ham.
The thing about Italian food, really, is that it is so regional. What’s eaten in the north is not eaten in the south. What we think of as Italian food in the US is often not really traditionally Italian. The same thing goes with traditional Italian desserts!
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Italy’s Regional Cuisine
Many people don’t know that Italy was a highly regionalized country until its unification in 1871. The country was until this time divided into dozens of independent states. Among many things, this division had an enormous effect on Italy’s food. Recipe, ingredients, and cooking techniques stayed within regions. Even to this day, what’s popular to eat in Lombardy isn’t popular in Puglia.
In addition to Italy’s past political divide, Italy’s climate plays a huge role in its regionalized cuisine. In northern Italy close to the Alps, you are going to find heavier dishes made with creams, cheeses, and earthy ingredients like nuts and mushrooms.
Travel south to Sicily or Calabria where summer temperature can reach into the 90s, you’ll find an entirely different offering. Dishes in southern Italy are lighter featuring olive oil, garlic, and of course tomatoes.
The regionality of Italy’s food is great giving food lovers a wide pallet of food to experience. But it can get a little out of hand. In our favorite region of Emilia-Romagna, one of the local breads is referred to by different names. If you are from Parma you call it torta fritta. If you are from Modena you call it gnocco fritto. The two cities are only 35 miles apart yet two different names. Just makes me love Italy even more.
What Are Italian Desserts?
My first experience with Italian desserts were these delicious Italian cookies we would get from our local Italian bakery. To this day I don’t remember the name of the cookie, but can still taste them. They were light yet filling. Buttery and not overly sweet. They were perfectly balanced. This balance is indicative of the range and variety of Italian desserts.
Italy’s location in the heart of the Mediterranean has had the biggest influence on its cuisine including desserts. Traders from Africa, the Middle East, and as far as Asia brought spices and ingredients to Italy. Over the centuries, cinnamon, vanilla, and other commonly used dessert ingredients were brought to Italy and found their way into many popular desserts. Desserts like sfogliatella and cannoli owe their existence to the spice trade and outside influence.
The desserts of Italy are mind-blowingly good. In all of our travels to Italy, I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface on Italian desserts. I also feel like there’s a dessert for everyone. If you like cold desserts, there’s semifreddo. Prefer a crunchy dessert, biscotti. Is cake your dessert of choice? Well, let’s see there’s Italian Sponge Cake, Italian Chocolate Cake, and Italian Apple Cake to name a few. And let’s not forget all the incredible Italian pastries. Hungry yet?
Traditional Italian Desserts
Here are some of the most traditional Italian desserts. You can find the specific Italian dessert recipes at the bottom of the post.
Aside from Ferrari and pizza, there is no other Italian word more recognizable than tiramisu. Arguably the most famous of all Italian desserts, it’s sweet without being overly sweet. Served cool, it’s refreshing after a proper Italian dinner feast. And, it seems like everyone has “the best” tiramisu recipe.
An interesting aspect about tiramisu is that the recipe is fairly new. Unlike many other famous Italian dessert recipes, the recipe for tiramisu dates back to the 1960/70s. There’s debate as to exactly when and where tiramisu was first made. Some say it was created at a restaurant in Treviso, northern Italy. Some say it is an older recipe dating back to the city of Siena in the 17th century. Regardless of when and where, let’s rejoice that we have it.
Like all great desserts, tiramisu only has a handful of ingredients. This lends people to get creative with their recipes. Don’t be surprised if you come across a tiramisu recipe without eggs, tiramisu cheesecake recipes, or a tiramisu trifle.
One of my favorite Italian desserts, panna cotta is a light, creamy dessert made using only a handful of ingredients. The ingredient that gives panna cotta its distinctive form is gelatine. When the panna cotta mixture of dissolved sugar, cream, flavoring is poured into a mold, the gelatine helps it set.
The origins of panna cotta are grey at best. Believed to have first been made in the Piemonte region of northern Italy, when this happened isn’t clear. Some say a woman in the town of Langhe first made panna cotta back in the early 1900s. What brings this into dispute is that no Italian cookbook before the 1960s mentions panna cotta. There are similar dishes with different names, like “latte inglese” in older Italian cooks but these recipes call for egg yolks which panna cotta does not.
Panna cotta is an adaptable dessert both in terms of how it can be flavored. Vanilla, coffee, and rum are the most popular ways to flavor the sugar and cream mixture. Several panna cotta recipes call for fruits, nuts, and figs as toppings when serving.
Italian Lemon Cake
Known in Italian as Ciambellone, this sinfully delicious cake is also referred to as Italian Lemon Pound Cake or most commonly as Italian Lemon Cake. Regardless of the name, regional variations of this cake can be found throughout Italy.
At its heart, Italian Lemon Cake is a ring-shaped cake made using flour, eggs, milk, and baking powder. The regional variations come into play with some versions using honey instead of sugar to sweeten. Other versions substitute Kamut flour for standard flour. While others substitute butter for oil.
The regional variations don’t stop at the main baking ingredients. While it’s called a lemon cake, it’s coming to see versions using oranges, hazelnuts, or mixed berries. In some parts of Italy like Calabria and Emilia Romagna, small versions are turned into donuts like pastries particularly around holidays like Christmas.
Like making desserts at home? Check out these recipe round ups:
Dessert Recipes from Italy
Our list of dessert recipes includes traditional Italian dessert recipes as well as ones with a modern twist. We’ve tried our best to include as many easy Italian dessert recipes as possible. As we find and test out new recipes, we will continue to update.