Italian geography is divided into 20 regions. Widely varied outside influences have resulted in vastly different cuisines and unique desserts in each region. Americanized Italian restaurants serve the ubiquitous colorful ice cream dessert known as spumoni, Italian ricotta based cheesecake.
And don’t forget our favorite… cannoli the fried tube shaped pastries filled with sweetened whipped ricotta cream. Beyond that, most Americans are unaware of how vast the variety of desserts in Italian cuisine is.
Pasta is synonymous with Italian food in many people’s minds. Every region of Italy has its own savory noodles, but most people are unaware that sweet variations exist as well. Perugina, a town in the Umbria region, makes a decadent chocolate noodle.
Gnocchi are hand formed dumplings loved in northern Italy. Potato gnocchi are usually savory, but sweet gnocchni are filled with fruit preserves and topped with buttery toasted breadcrumbs, cinnamon and sugar. Another sweet gnocchi option is feather light ricotta gnocchi.
There are lots of Italian cookies you can use for desserts. For example we all love cannolis, but did you know you can make your own cannoli using pizzelles? You can also double up by using our pizzelle recipe with anise and serve it as a flat wafer.
Polenta, or coarsely ground cornmeal, is another staple starch of northern Italy. The flour is used in many sweet recipes, including a buttery almond cake called amor polenta. Crumbly citrus flavored cookies are also made from this grain.
Nuts play a large role in Italian desserts. Almonds are blanched briefly to remove the skin, then ground with sugar and egg whites to make pliable almond paste. This sticky substance can be used to make fruit shaped candies, or baked into macaroons, cakes and tarts.
Hazelnuts are often paired with chocolate in Italian cooking. They are used to make gianduja, chocolates flavored with nut paste. Hazelnuts are used whole in the twice baked cookies known as biscotti and processed into nut butter for nocciola, hazelnut flavored gelato.
Walnuts are also popular. Check out my recipe for Italian toto cookies where the walnuts and the hint of whiskey make a great combo!
Chestnuts are very popular in savory dishes, but more often are served as part of the dessert course. Chestnut puree is sweetened and topped with whipped cream in Mont Blanc and blended with chocolate and molded to create the decadent chocolater terrine served in Turin. Chestnut flour may be baked into a cake known as castagnaccio. The most elegant of chestnut desserts are marron glacés, whole chestnuts candied in a vanilla flavored syrup.
Pecans can be used in desserts such as pecan butter balls, a family favoite.
Fresh fruit is often served as part of Italian desserts. Whether it is served raw with cheese or garnishing a tart covered with pastry cream, Italians enjoy fruit. Citron, a popular candied fruit rind, is used in panettone, a sweet bread eaten to celebrate Christmas, or as flavoring in the filling for cannoli.
Unlike most of Italy’s recipes, tiramisu is a relatively new creation. This dessert uses savoiardi, a light airy cookie known as ladyfingers in the United States, in place of cake. Each cookie is quickly dipped in a liqueur and espresso mixture.
The moistened cookies are then spread with a whipped filling made with sweetened mascarpone cheese and egg yolks and topped with cocoa powder or shaved chocolate as a garnish.
There is an amazing variety of Italian desserts. Some of these desserts are perishable and unable to be exported, but many pastries and candies are available in the United States. If you do not have a local Italian import shop, they can be found for sale online.
Of course, the best way to experience the full range of Italian desserts is to go and visit Italy for yourself!