Italian food is undoubtedly one of the most popular cuisines in the world. Italy is renowned for its creation and iconic developments of pizza, pasta, risotto, and an abundance of wine available.
The southern European country is also known for its delicious, creamy gelato, which can be found across the world in an abundance of flavors.
Aside from gelato, you might be stumped when it comes to thinking about other Italian desserts. Italy, after all, is most famous for its iconic range of savory foods. However, alongside pasta and pizza, Italian cuisine thrives in the dessert department.
If you want to add more dessert options to your cooking repertoire, or perhaps you want some inspiration for a third course of your Italian dinner, here are the 15 best Italian desserts!
Potentially one of the most famous and popular Italian desserts is tiramisu. Tiramisu is a coffee-based dessert consisting of layers of ladyfingers soaked in coffee amongst a mixture of mascarpone, eggs, and sugar.
The top layer is dusted with cocoa powder. In some recipes, people will add a splash of liquor.
Interestingly, the name “tiramisu” comes from the Italian phrase “tirami su”, roughly translating to “pick/pull me up” – an apt name for such a comforting and delicious dessert.
It is argued that tiramisu originated in 1969 by a small group of chefs in a Treviso restaurant, located in Veneto. Due to the alleged aphrodisiac qualities of tiramisu, the dessert first appeared in the United States in 1993 after Tom Hanks’ film Sleepless In Seattle referenced tiramisu.
Translating to “cooked cream” in Italian, panna cotta is an Italian dessert consisting of a thickened sweet cream with gelatin. The cream itself generally comes with a gentle flavoring, such as coffee, rum, or vanilla through infusing spices and flavors.
Various toppings include fruit or berries coulis to add a tartness to the sweet cream, as well as chocolate or caramel sauces. Panna cotta is often garnished with fruit or a sprig of mint.
Interestingly, panna cotta didn’t appear in Italian recipe books until the 1960s, but several variations have existed prior to this, consisting of a thickened custard or cream.
While some restaurants like to keep it simple, others like to mold their panna cottas into unique shapes to create a unique dessert.
Torta di Riso
Torta di Riso, affectionately known as rice cake, is a sweet cake most traditionally made around the celebration of Easter in Italy. However, Torta di Riso must not be confused with Italian Easter cake, though the two have several similarities such as the distinctive almond flavorings.
Torta di Riso was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when female peasants were in control of the rice harvest.
They would travel from afar to cultivate Arborio short-grain rice, and whatever was left over from the harvest was created into a cake-like substance when the women combined the rice from cow’s milk.
The news spread across Italy, with bakers taking creative liberties with the recipe to make the Torta di Riso we know now.
Crostatas are an Italian baked pie or tart that is historically and traditionally known for its open format. These pies or tarts can contain a range of fillings, including but not limited to fruit preserves (usually apricot, lemon, cherry, peach, or berries), cream, vegetables, and meats.
The most modern form of crostata is the Nutella crostata – possibly the most indulgent dessert on our list.
Even the non-chocolate lovers go crazy for Nutella crostata. The nutty flavoring within the chocolate spread cooperates beautifully with the buttery crust, and for those who don’t want something sickeningly sweet, we recommend adding extra heavy cream to soften the sweetness.
Plus, another reason why crostatas are so popular is because they are surprisingly easy to make.
You didn’t think you’d get through this list without seeing cannoli, did you? Cannoli are delicious tube-like fried pastries with a ricotta-based creamy filling inside. These are a Sicilian cuisine staple, which is why they are mostly called cannoli Siciliani or Sicilian Cannoli in Italy.
The fillings range in flavor, with some mixing mascarpone, orange zest, or even spices like nutmeg to sweeten the taste of the ricotta.
It is believed that the origins of cannoli date back to 827-1091 AD from the mistresses of princes who wanted to get their attention. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then it makes sense why cannoli became a successful attention-grabbing dessert.
While cannoli aren’t impossible to make, it will take some practice to make these at home.
If you don’t have enough room in your stomach for a heavy dessert, affogato is the way to go. Affogato is simple yet effective, consisting of a scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato, served with a drizzled-over shot of hot espresso.
The mixture of hot coffee and cold gelato creates a perfect temperature and flavor, soothing the sweet cravings after a big dinner. There are some variations of affogato in terms of gelato flavor, as well as the optional addition of a biscuit or shot of liqueur like amaretto.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive history of the iconic affogato. It’s safe to assume that some Italian genius thought coffee and gelato would be a fun combination, or they accidentally spilled a shot of espresso into a bowl of ice cream and called it a masterpiece.
Another light Italian dessert option is the ever-popular biscotti. Also known as cantucci, biscotti are twice-baked almond biscuits known for their deliciously crunchy texture. These iconic biscuits originated in Tuscany with the aim of making a satisfying after-dinner treat without filling the person(s) up.
Biscotti are typically served with a glass of red wine, a mug of coffee, black tea, or a sweet dessert wine. This is because, due to the dryness of the biscuit, biscotti is meant to be dunked into liquid.
While traditional biscotti are typically made with pine nuts and almonds, modern and regional variations include other ingredients in the recipe, such as hazelnuts, pistachio, and dried fruits like cherries. It’s also common for biscotti to be partially dipped in a chocolate glaze.
Easter Cake (Colomba di Pasqua)
Italian Easter cake, otherwise known as Colomba di Pasqua amongst native speakers, is a traditional Italian dessert served at – you guessed it – Easter.
The history of the Easter cake is an interesting one, as it first originated in response to the popular panettone and pandoro, both of which are Italian Christmas desserts.
In fact, the dough of an Easter cake is similar to panettone dough, as it consists of flour, butter, eggs, natural yeast, and sugar. Colomba also contains candied orange peel and a sugary almond glaze topping. In true Easter fashion, Colomba cakes are shaped into a dove shape.
While this cake is traditionally and only typically made and served around Easter in Italy, it might be nice to try something new for Easter in other countries!
Torta Della Nonna
Translating literally to “grandmother’s cake” in Italian, torta della nonna is one of those desserts that reminds Italians of home. In fact, it’s not even exclusive to Italians – this cake (which is actually a tart) is the ultimate comfort food that has won the hearts of millions across the world.
Despite the name of the dessert, torta della nonna actually originated in a kitchen rather than by a particular grandmother. The name was given to the tart due to the straightforward recipe and simple yet effective flavors.
This dessert consists of a lemon-flavored cream that is baked between a top and bottom soft pastry, which is then topped with powdered sugar and pine nuts.
Be prepared for your family or friends to beg you for the recipe once you’ve tempted them with your own torta della nonna.
Eaten either as a snack or a dessert, a bombolone (bomboloni for plural) is an Italian stuffed donut. These tasty donuts were aptly named due to their likeness to bombs (bomba in Italian) or grenades due to their circular formation with an “explosive” filling inside.
These fillings are usually chocolate, custard, or even marmalade.
The origins of bomboloni are somewhat unknown, because while the recipe is connected to the Tuscany region, the donuts are also believed to originate from Austria. If you go to Tuscany, you’ll most likely see bomboloni sold at street vendors and stalls along the seafront.
If you intend to eat bomboloni as a dessert, we recommend pairing the donuts with an Italian wine or a mug of coffee.
It would be impossible to research Italian desserts without even considering gelato. Gelato is one of Italy’s most famous food types, and it’s essentially a dense (and far more luxurious) version of ice cream.
The way that gelato is made means that it contains 70% less air than other frozen desserts like ice cream, allowing room for far more flavor and a smoother texture.
Traditional gelato flavors include vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, cream, hazelnut, and almond. Modern flavors include apple, lemon, raspberry, strawberry, and pineapple.
The origins of gelato date back to the 14th-16th century, though it’s unclear who is responsible for inventing the iconic dessert. There’s even a debate whether gelato was invented in Sicily or Florence.
So, polenta cake isn’t technically an exclusively Italian dessert, but it’s sort of inspired by Italian flavors and cooking, which is why it has earned its place on this list.
Polenta cake is a dense, flat, and circular cake typically made with fruity flavors such as lemon or orange, but other variations include chocolate, almond, rhubarb, ginger, pistachio, and even courgette.
It is believed that the main Italian inspiration for the polenta cake is the shape of the dessert that mimics (or is at least reminiscent of) circular flat cakes found in the windows of patisseries in Italy.
Polenta cake is denser than a traditional cake, making this an ideal dessert for when you’re not quite full after dinner.
Pandoro is a traditional Italian cake or bread made and consumed at Christmas and New Year, so what better way to celebrate the end of the year by making a big cake?
Made typically in Verona, pandoro is mostly shaped like an elongated vertical star, with the vertical elongated shape representing the snow-capped mountains of the Italian Alps (complete with a dusting of icing sugar, of course).
Pandoro was always a treat for Italians, dating back to the Middle Ages when sweet bread was only reserved for nobility. Nowadays, the buttery cake is adored by millions regardless of wealth and status, and is often preferred to the iconic panettone cake.
The sister to the popular pandoro, panettone is another Italian cake dessert typically eaten around Christmas.
Panettone is a sweet bread that originated in Milan, but is also commonly consumed as a Christmas treat in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Australia, various parts of Europe, and other places.
Unlike pandoro, panettone has an elongated circular shape with a dome top. The baking process includes a long proofing process to make for the fluffy texture.
Panettone is most known for the inclusion of lemon zest, raisins, candied orange, and sometimes even chocolate. Interestingly, the origins of panettone dates back to the Roman Empire!
Inspired by the popular Italian amaretti biscuits, amaretti peaches is a delicious dessert idea that combines the crispy almond-flavored biscuits with juicy baked peaches.
The combination works surprisingly well, plus they’re not too difficult to make. Paired with a dollop of mascarpone, and you’ve got yourself the perfect end to an Italian dinner night. It’s common for recipes to combine the amaretti with a liqueur or vanilla extract to add even more flavor to the dessert.