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Be they rich, buttery, fruity, or gooey, and everything in between, these beloved Italian pastries are a must-try when visiting Italy, and the perfect choice for breakfast – or any time of the day, for that matter!
Pastries have a special home in cuisines across Europe, and in Italy, especially, the craft, love, and cultural significance of these glorious treats are there for all the see.
Wander down a cobbled alley or onto a busy square, and it won’t take you long to spot Italians of all ages, sitting outside a cafe or bakery, enjoying one or more of these baked delights with their morning coffee.
We’ve worked closely with Roxana, a writer who has lived in Rome for over two decades, to bring you a rundown of 18 of the country’s absolutely must-try pastries. Seek them out in bakeries, cafes, and restaurants, and savor each and every wonderous mouthful!
One of the most popular pastries you’ll find in Italy is the cornetto, the equivalent of the French croissant. Unlike the French croissant, the Italian cornetto tends to be softer and less buttery.
Both pastries originated from the Austrian kipferl. The cornetto arrived in Italy, specifically Venice, in the late 17th century, thanks to the relations between the Republic of Venice and Vienna.
The Italian cornetto is, by far, the most popular breakfast pastry in the country. You can find it empty or with all kinds of fillings, from custard cream and various types of jam to Nutella or pistachio cream. The cornetto is best served with a foamy cappuccino
The cannolo is a traditional Sicilian pastry, but you’ll find it all over Italy. In English, it’s commonly called cannoli, but in Italian, that is the plural of the word, while cannolo is the singular form. The name is very explicative of the pastry tube shape, since cannolu means “little tube” in Sicilian.
The crunchy tube made of fried pastry is filled with tasty ricotta cream. The two ends of the tube are usually dipped in various ingredients, from candied fruits to chocolate chips or chopped pistachio.
Needless to say, the best place to try cannoli is Sicily. However, you’ll find Sicilian pastry shops all over Italy.
The sfogliatella is a pastry from the Campania region, created in the Monastery of Santa Rosa near Salerno. In the US, this shell-shaped pastry is called a lobster tail. In Italy, the name comes from the type of dough used to make it, called pasta sfoglia (puff pastry).
You can find two versions of the sfogliatella in Italy; the riccia, made with puff pastry, and the frolla, made with shortcrust pastry (pasta frolla). The classic filling is a ricotta-based cream, but almond paste is a popular variation.
The best place to try the sfogliatella is in its home region, Campania. If you visit Naples, have this freshly baked pastry at the historic Sfogliate e Sfogliatelle.
The bombolone is the Italian version of the popular doughnut, except it doesn’t have a hole. Another name for this pastry is bomba, which translates to “bomb,” probably due to its shape resembling a small, round bomb.
The bombolone is particularly widespread in Tuscany, but you can find it in pastry shops across the country. In Northern Italy, particularly the regions that used to be under Austrian rule, the pastry originated from the Austrian krapfen. However, this variety includes eggs in the dough, while the Tuscan ones don’t.
You can have a bombolone with various fillings, from custard cream to Nutella. The pastry is commonly served for breakfast, but in summer, you’ll often find it sold in carts along the beach.
The maritozzo is a staple of Roman bakery, traditionally served for breakfast or as a sweet treat throughout the day. The name derives from the Italian for husband, marito, and is linked to the origins of this tasty treat.
According to one version of the pastry’s origins, women used to prepare these sweet buns for their husbands to take to work in the fields. Another version has men gift the maritozzo to their future wives on the first Friday of March, historically corresponding to Saint Valentine’s Day.
The ancient pastry is still sold in bakeries across Rome, although you may find it in other places across Italy. The sweet bun is filled with whipped cream and pairs well with coffee or cappuccino.
Chiacchiere is the Italian name for the deep-fried pastries commonly eaten during Carnival. In English, they are known as Angel Wings and come in the shape of twisted ribbons of dough covered in powdered sugar.
Depending on the region of Italy you go to, you’ll find chiacchiere under different names, like bugie in Piedmont and Liguria, frappe in Rome and its surroundings, and frappole in some places around Tuscany.
The chiacchiere likely originated in Ancient Rome. Back then, they were known as frictilia and were fried in animal fat. The pastries were popular during Roman festivals like the Bacchanalia dedicated to Bacchus (or Dionysus) and the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn.
Zeppole are deep-fried balls of dough traditionally sprinkled with sugar and topped with custard cream and candied cherry.
The pastries are mainly eaten during Saint Joseph’s Day, which is why they are also known as Bignè di San Giuseppe or Saint Joseph’s Day Cake. In Italy, St. Joseph also corresponds to Father’s Day.
Although you can find these pastries throughout Italy, they are most widespread in Naples and Rome. While custard cream is usually added on top of the pastries, you may also find these dough balls filled with this cream. Other popular fillings are jam and hazelnut cream. Zeppole may look slightly different depending on the region.
This shortcrust pastry traditional from the Apulia region takes the shape of a mini pie and can be filled with ricotta cheese or egg custard. Pasticciotti may have different fillings in other Italian regions, like almond, chocolate, pistachio, or vanilla.
The pasticciotto was invented in a small town close to Lecce in the mid-18th century. In Apulia, particularly in the Salento area, locals eat pasticciotti for breakfast, so you’ll find them in virtually every bakery. The pastry is ideally served warm.
If you want to try a pasticciotto in its birthplace, head to Galatina, a small town half an hour south of Lecce.
Cantucci (or biscotti) are almond biscuits originally from the city of Prato in Tuscany. The biscuits are baked twice, making them very dry and crunchy.
Cantuccio is a word historically used to refer to the bread corners, which have a lot of crust. Biscotti, on the other hand, comes from the Latin biscoctus, which means twice cooked.
A traditional way to serve cantucci in Tuscany is at the end of a meal, accompanied by vin santo, a dessert wine.
In other regions, like Lazio, Umbria, and Abruzzo, these cookies are known as tozzetti. Instead of almonds, they may contain hazelnuts or other nuts.
Amaretti are another type of Italian cookie, this time traditional to the town of Saronno in Lombardy. Amaretti can be of various types, usually made with almonds, but the original Amaretti di Saronno are made with apricot kernels. Each Italian region has come up with its variety of amaretto, so you’ll find different types across the country.
In general, amaretti can mainly be of two types, crunchy, like the Amaretto di Saronno, or fluffy, similar to marzipan. Both varieties come in a small round shape. Like the cantucci, these cookies are also traditionally served with dessert wine.
Pandoro is one of Italy’s most widespread traditional Christmas pastries, along with the panettone. The dessert bread comes in the shape of a big trunk with an eight-point star section. This particular shape is supposed to resemble the Alpine peaks, especially when sprinkled with powdered sugar to recall snow-capped mountains.
The recipe dates back to 18th-century Venice when a sweet bread called “pan de oro” was served in noble houses. The official pandoro recipe appeared in 1884, and its inventor was Domenico Melegatti, a pastry chef and the founder of the Melegatti company, one of the most renowned pandoro producers.
The fluffy pandoro is usually served plain, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Other ways of serving it involve topping the slices with pastry cream, jam, or chocolate cream. Have it with coffee or sweet wine.
The panettone is similar to pandoro, but unlike its simple cousin, it has candied fruits and raisins added to the dough. The shape is also different. Although both sweet bread types are tall and fluffy, the pandoro is usually cylindrical.
The panettone was likely invented in Milan, and it derives from an old tradition dating back to the 9th century of serving a type of sweet bread on Christmas day. The first mention of a sweet bread made with butter, raisins, and spices dates to 1599 in the town of Pavia. In the 19th century, the panettone was already widespread in Milan.
Like the pandoro, panettone is also a typical Christmas product, served after the big Christmas lunch, better if accompanied by sweet wine.
Pastiera is a Neapolitan tart traditionally served during Easter time. The origins of this dessert are uncertain, but it was likely invented in a Neapolitan convent. The pastry was supposed to evoke the Resurrection, hence the use of eggs, which symbolize new life.
The pastry is also probably linked to the cult of Ceres, whose priestess used to carry an egg during the procession. Many other legends refer to this particular dessert, but they all revolve around the same symbol of resurrection. Therefore, pastiera became a traditional Easter pastry.
The Campania region is the place to go if you want to eat the traditional pastiera. Nevertheless, you can find the tart also in other places throughout Italy, especially in Neapolitan pastry shops.
Colomba is another traditional Easter dessert, also known as Colomba di Pasqua (Easter Dove). The colomba is the Easter variation of the Christmas panettone and is very similar too. In this case, the dough takes the shape of a dove, and aside from candied fruits, it also includes almonds.
The colomba became famous in the 1930s when the Milanese sweets manufacturer Motta, who was already selling the panettone, came up with the idea of creating a similar sweet bread to celebrate Easter. The colomba soon became popular all over Italy and continues to be the symbol of Easter.
Aside from the traditional version topped with almonds and nib sugar, you can find many variations, the most popular being the chocolate-coated colomba.
The ciambella, or ciambellone, is a simple yet beloved Italian cake, originally from the Marche region. The dessert looks like a big doughnut with a hole in the middle. In fact, ciambella is Italian for the doughnut, while ciambellone refers to a big doughnut.
The pastry product has humble origins and very few simple ingredients: eggs, milk, sugar, butter or lard, flour, and yeast. The original version of the ciambellone is plain and sprinkled with powdered sugar. However, the recipe was modified by adding various ingredients, from cocoa and yogurt to candied fruits and nuts.
The big doughnut is cut into thick slices and typically served for breakfast, with milk or cappuccino. Although the cake was born in Marche, it’s common all over Italy.
This baked tart is one of the most versatile desserts in Italy. The oldest traces of the crostata date to the late 15th century when it appeared in a few cookbooks.
The tart is made with shortcrust pastry and filled with fruit preserves, Nutella, or pastry cream and fruits. The top of the tart is usually decorated with slices of dough forming a grid.
Although the crostata is usually a big, round tart, you’ll find it also in its smaller variety, the crostatina, which means a small crostata. The pastry pairs well with coffee, so it’s common to have it for breakfast.
You’ll notice many bars serving crostata by the slice or small crostatine. However, this friable tasty tart is perfect as a sweet treat any time of the day.
Babà is another staple of Neapolitan bakery, so much so that many believe it was invented in Naples. However, the yeast cake soaked in rhum is French, more precisely from the Lorraine region.
Although the French perfected the yeast cake, its origins can be traced to the Slavic countries, in particular, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
In Naples, the babà has a shape resembling a mushroom and can be served plain or filled with chocolate or whipped cream. You can find the babà as a cake or in the mignon version. If you visit Naples, you’ll find babà in any pastry shop.
Lastly, the sebada or seada is a fried pastry filled with cheese traditional of Sardinia. The semolina pastry may be filled with cow or sheep milk cheese. The pastries are deep-fried and then immediately soaked in warm honey, and are better served warm.
To eat seadas, you must travel to Sardinia. In mainland Italy, you may find these pastries in Sardinian restaurants, but they are rare.
In Sardinia, on the other hand, you’ll find them in most restaurants and even in shops specialized in making these pastries, like Saseada in Cagliari. Have it with a glass of dessert wine.
Delectable and delightful pastries are such a big part of not only Italian cuisine but Italian culture. Gorging on some, if not all, of these sweet wonders at bakeries and cafes should definitely be on your agenda when you visit.
Whether it’s the ancient architecture of Rome, the rolling hills of Tuscany, or the warm waters lapping the beaches of the Amalfi, your visit will be made even more magical with some of these favorites. “When in Rome…”, as they say!
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Contributor: Roxana Fanaru is a journalist and writer who has lived in Rome for nearly two decades. She is deeply passionate about Italian cuisine, culture, and travel and writes for a number of publications.