Best Desserts in Italy: 14 Traditional Italian Desserts for the Sweet Tooth Foodie
If there’s one thing Italy is known for, it’s the food. Pizza, pasta and a multitude of other traditional Italian foods immediately come to mind. But we’d be remiss if we did not discuss everyone’s favorite parts of any meal — dessert.
Italians love their dessert. So much so that you don’t even need to wonder whether dinner will be followed up with a sweet treat. The answer is always a resounding Sí, sí!
There are so many sweet treats to consider but look to try these 14 best desserts in Italy. You may have to cover some ground when you’re there to find these regional favorites. But the foodie struggle is real. Traveling for treats is what we do!
Dessert in Italy
Dessert in Italy is different from dessert in other parts of the world. Italian sweets, or dolci, are usually much smaller. Just a few bites of sweetness is the perfect ending to any meal. You’ll never see Italians bombing a banana split after a meal, or even on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Their sweet treats are a small cone or cup of gelato, a small dessert to complement a meal, or a cup of Cioccolata Calda (Italian hot chocolate) on a cold winter’s day. The same goes for Italian coffee drinks. You won’t find the giant Starbucks dessert drinks drizzled with sprinkles and caramel (ugh).
Just a small shot of espresso, or a well-crafted and pretty little Italian drink or digestivo is all you really need. Take Vin Santo for example, the perfect sweet dessert wine paired with one bite-size biscotti.
How’s that for an unexpected dietary surprise? More room for pizza!
And, like all food in Italy, desserts vary significantly from season to season and region to region. There are distinct regional differences in the sweet treats served in one corner of the country versus another. Each region has its own specialties.
No matter your taste, one thing is for certain. You won’t leave Italy disappointed. The desserts here are some of the best in the world.
So sit back, relax, and bring your appetite (and your stretchy pants) because we’re about to dig in. Here are 12 of the most traditional, and delicious, treats in Italy.
Nervous about getting off the beaten path at Italy’s local restaurants?
Be sure and read our Essential Guide to Italian Food Phrases for ordering food in Italian!
Best Desserts in Italy, and Where to Find Them
1. Apple Strudel
Where to find the best? South Tyrol in Trentino-Alto Adige
Traditional apple strudel may be the furthest thing from your mind when you think of Italian desserts, but in this vast northern region of Italy where the craggy peaks of the Dolomites tower over green mountain meadows and hearty fare like dumplings reign supreme on every menu, apfelstrudel is one of South Tyrol’s most beloved foods and one of the most traditional Italian desserts you’ll find.
With the abundance of apples throughout the year, it’s no wonder strudel and other baked goods like dumplings and tortes are enjoyed. If you like good old American apple pie, the strudel you’ll find in Trentino-Alto Adige will rival the best you’ve ever had!
Where to find the best? Everywhere!
Picture Italy and an image of an Italian walking around with a cup of gelato is probably not far off. This tastier alternative to ice cream is perhaps the most famous Italian dessert.
What’s even better is that you do not need an excuse to indulge. You’ll find Italians walking in and out of gelaterias any time of day in every region of the country making it one of Italy’s favorite street foods, or foods eaten al passegio!
From classic favorites like pistachio and stracciatella (sweet cream with chocolate chips) to exotic flavors such as ricotta and licorice, the possibilities are limitless.
So what makes it different from ice cream? We thought you’d never ask. The frozen treat differs from conventional ice cream in a number of important ways.
To start, gelato is made with more milk than cream, giving it a much lower fat content than ice cream in the United States. It’s also served a few degrees warmer, so it doesn’t freeze as solidly.
Traditional ice cream is also whipped with air and water to add weight and volume, making it less dense and less flavorful. The added fat also means that it has a longer shelf life.
Gelato is not meant to be stored. It’s made in small batches and frozen quickly - making it fresher and more flavorful - and the very best is enjoyed just days after being produced. You won’t find it served with an ice cream scoop either. The authentic stuff is dished out with a flat spade.
While we’ve never tasted gelato we didn’t like, we recommend staying away from the gelaterias serving bright neon flavors in every color of the rainbow. The more traditional-looking stores usually have the best product.
Where to find the best? Treviso in Veneto
Made with coffee-soaked ladyfingers and layers of mascarpone cheese, this mood-boosting Italian dessert literally translates to “pick-me-up.” The sweet treat may also be infused with liquor, although not required.
While this dessert certainly got its start in Italy, it actually did not begin appearing on menus in most restaurants until it gained popularity in the United States.
Today, tiramisu is one of the most popular Italian delicacies served in the States. Whether it’s served in an individual glass or cut like a cake, it’s always enjoyed with a spoon. Other variations may include fruit, such as strawberries, or even Nutella.
Where to find the best? Sicily
The popular Italian dolci hail from Sicily and may be the most quintessential of Sicilian foods. The word cannoli is plural (cannolo is singular), so be careful not to ask for “one cannoli.”
The fried tube-shaped shells are filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese and sometimes dipped with chocolate, candied fruit, or pistachios. Cannoli is one of the traditional Sicilian desserts, but you’ll find it throughout the country.
Depending on where you are in Italy, the creamy filling may also be mixed with chocolate or chocolate chips.
So how do you spot the best ones? Look for cases of just shells. Filling the tubes upon order keeps them from getting soggy.
5. Panna Cotta
Where to find the best? Piedmont
Originating in Piemonte, a region of Italy famous for its dairy products, this traditional Italian dessert translates to “cooked cream.” Fresh cream is thickened with gelatin and placed in a dome-shaped mold until it sets just enough to stand on its own.
The custard-like dessert may be topped with fresh fruit or drizzled with chocolate or caramel sauce. Other variations may infuse the cream with coffee, vanilla, and other flavorings.
Where to find the best? Naples in Campania
Hailing from Naples, sfogliatelle (pronounced sfoo-yah-TELL-eh) is a traditional Italian pastry, and one of the most famous foods of Campania. And that’s saying a lot in a place like Napoli where pastry is everything!
Sfogliatelle is the most famous of Napoli desserts. The word itself translates to “lobster tail” in reference to the seashell shape created from the layers and layers of dough that crisps when baked.
The clam-shaped pastry of delicate thin outer layers filled with a mixture of sweetened ricotta cheese and citrus/orange peel (sometimes chocolate or cinnamon depending on the bakery), giving it just the right amount of sweetness. They come in different sizes so you can enjoy one as a dessert or have a smaller one with a coffee for a sweet snack.
It’s fun to eat, and best of all, it can be enjoyed virtually any time of day. You’ve gotta love a place where eating pastry in the middle of the day is not only socially acceptable, but highly encouraged!
Where to find the best? Tuscany
These twice-baked almond cookies got their start in Tuscany. While you might hear them referred to as biscotti in the United States, the Italian word is technically an umbrella term under which several different types of cookies fall.
Traditional cantucci are made without butter or oil. Dough is shaped into a log, baked, and sliced diagonally with a serrated knife. The cookies are then baked one final time to dry them out and get that characteristic crunchiness.
Recipes typically call for almonds, but ingredients like chocolate chips, hazelnuts, pistachios, or dried fruit can easily be substituted.
The biscuits are traditionally served after a meal with Vin Santo, a sweet Tuscan dessert wine, but they’re also perfect for dipping in coffee, tea, or cappuccino. Store in a sealed container and they’ll stay fresh for weeks!
Where to find the best? Milan in Lombardy
Originating in Milan, this traditional Italian sweet bread can now be found all throughout the country. The cakelike consistency is typically speckled with raisins and candied citrus peels. It’s light, fruity, and traditionally enjoyed around the holidays for Christmas and New Year’s, although you can find it made other times of the year. Italians have been making – and eating – panettone for centuries.
In fact, they love it so much that they consume ~4.5 pounds per person each year! It’s usually served with a hot beverage or dessert wine, but is also perfect sliced, toasted, or smothered with sweet crema di mascarpone.
Where to find the best? Pizzo in Calabria
Italian for “truffle,” tartufo is a chocolate-covered bombe of two ice cream flavors and a syrupy fruit center. The popular treat got its start in Pizzo, arguably the ice cream capital of the country, when chef Giuseppe de Maria ran out of cups preparing dessert to celebrate a very important wedding.
Frantically searching for a way to serve hundreds of party guests, he began molding the dessert into a ball around a melted chocolate center and dusting it in sugar and cocoa. Today, Tartufo di Pizzo is still made with chocolate and hazelnut ice cream and hails as one of the best desserts in the world.
It’s also a certified IGP (Indication of Geographic Protection) product, meaning only tartufo produced in Pizzo may carry the label.
Where to find the best? Lazio and Apulia
Light and fluffy, these fried balls of dough are one of Italy’s tastiest treats and one of the more traditional Roman desserts. They can be tossed in a paper bag and shaken with powdered sugar as classic Italian street fare or served on a platter and jazzed up with a chocolate or raspberry dipping sauce.
Italians also celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph each year with zeppole topped with cream and black cherries, a famous variation known as Zeppole di San Giuseppe. No matter how they’re served, one thing’s for certain – it’s virtually impossible to have just one.
11. Babá al Rum
Where to find the best? Naples in Campania
The rum-soaked sponge cake has become an icon of Campania and Napoli in particular, where the bite-size rum cakes are one of the most delectable street foods in Naples. But despite its association with southern Italy, the boozy delight sometimes referred to as Baba Napoli actually originated in Eastern Europe.
Personal chefs serving the aristocracy brought the sweet to Naples, where it quickly gained widespread popularity. The cake is baked in individual cylindrical molds before being soaked in a citrus syrup infused with rum.
It may be served with a dollop of whipped cream but is delicious all on its own.
12. Zabaglione (Sabayon)
Where to find the best? Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, and Piedmont
This traditional custard is made from egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine. The mixture is beaten and simmered until it thickens to a light, delicate consistency.
While it is still hot, it may be spooned into custard glasses and dressed with fruit, nuts, or flavored sauces. The simple delight makes the perfect base for any number of creations.
Top with fresh strawberries and blueberries for a sweet – and healthy – summer treat.
Where to find the best? Lecce in Apulia
This dessert resembles a round mini pie with a flaky crust but the real surprise awaits within. Filled with a creamy custard filling, the traditional pasticciotto of Apulia is made even sweeter with black cherries!
You’ll find this dessert in other parts of Italy too, filled with everything from syrupy fruit fillings, custard, and creamy chocolate. The small round shape makes a perfect after dinner small bite of sweetness.
Where to find the best? Florence in Tuscany
Meet your new favorite pick-me-up – a scoop (or two) of decadent vanilla or hazelnut gelato with a shot of freshly brewed espresso poured over the top. The coldness of the gelato meets the steaming hot coffee for the perfect marriage of flavors.
This sweet treat is an Italian classic that’s a metaphor for Italian food in general — as simple and delicious as it gets. If you’re feeling rowdy, you can even spike the espresso with a shot of liquor. Why not!
You may not always find this one listed on the menu in Italy, but it’s almost always available upon request. In Florence and other parts of Tuscany, you’ll even find it on the street in small plastic cups — the perfect afternoon Florence street food!
What to Drink with Your Italian Dessert
We haven’t been anywhere in Italy where we couldn’t find an espresso shop, often with or next to a gelateria — Italians love their espresso and enjoy it several times a day!
Espresso is made by forcing hot water under pressure through very fine coffee grounds, it has a rich concentrated coffee flavor and will have a layer of crema on top.
It’s also used as a base for other coffee drinks like cappuccino, caffe latte or mocha, and macchiato. In the finer shops the barista will skillfully create a pretty design in the crema.
This lemon liqueur is predominately found in southern Italy especially on the Amalfi Coast where lemons are the size of grapefruits. You’ll find it served everywhere around Naples and on the island of Capri.
Even with something as simple as a bowl of soup, you’ll probably be offered a small glass of limoncello as a “digestivo” at the end of the meal. What a great custom!
Limoncello is also surprisingly easy to make at home. If you prefer orange flavor to that of lemons, making Arancello from oranges is also well worth a try.
Italian Dessert Snacks
Believed to be of southern European origin, this Italian nougat and nut confection will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. It’s made with sugar, honey, egg whites, often with an orange essence, loaded with toasted almonds and sometimes pistachios are added for even more flavor.
You can usually find it shaped into rectangular logs or sliced into thin slabs. To prevent sticking it has a thin edible wafer coating the top and bottom. Torrone has always been a Christmas treat for us but don’t wait for the holidays to try it.
This snack food hails from the Foggia area of Puglia, where my grandmother comes from, and we grew up eating these! Taralle can be small about the size of a coin (tarallini), or a bit larger like the size of a plum. They can be made sweet or savory, but the most popular versions of them mix the wheat flour with anise or rosemary.
So did you find your new favorite Italian dessert? We hope you enjoyed reading this and will look for these Italian desserts the next time you’re in Italy!