Italian Pastries & Cakes 101: From Cornetto to Cassata Siciliana

April 17, 2023

Italy is famous for its food. With delicious pizzas, unique pastas, world-class cheeses, and, oh yea, incredible wine, it has a lot to offer! But after that pizza, don’t forget about all the scrumptious Italian cakes and Italian pastries!

Don’t know where to start? Here are some of our favorite Italian pastries and cakes for you to try:

Brioche or Cornetto

fresh-baked cornettos are some of the finest Italian pastries.

Italians typically start their morning with something sweet, and these cornetti perfectly fit the bill! Photo by Joy (flickr)

A type of pastry, the brioche (or cornetto, depending on where you live in Italy) is exclusively eaten for breakfast, usually accompanied by a coffee or cappuccino that you can dip it into. The dough has more sugar than a French brioche or croissant and a more cake-like texture. Also, unlike the French purists, Italians don’t mind mixing it up and you can find empty brioches, or ones filled with cream, jelly, honey or chocolate. Take your pick!


Photo by Gina Mussio

Perhaps the “happiest” Italian dessert of the bunch, tiramisu in Italian literally means  “pick me up.” It makes sense – who wouldn’t feel uplifted by a delicious dessert made of coffee-coated soft cookies called Savoiardi (lad fingers), a delicious mascarpone cream and chocolate? Though many regions claim it as their own, including Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont, most accounts link the delicious dessert to Treviso, in the Veneto region. (for more on the best foods of Veneto, check out our guide right here).


Photo by Judy Witts

Though the crostata is technically a rustic pie, you can get as elaborate as you’d like – like this one with additional decoration! Photo by Judy Witts

The crostata is an  pie with a crust made from Italian pastry (hence the name, crostata) and a fruit or jelly filling. Rustic in nature, there are endless variations to the crostata, with fillings ranging from cherries and other berries to nectarines, apricots or even Nutella! The crostata is easy to make and an Italian classic – you’re sure to find it in any Italian nonna’s house!

Cassata Siciliana

Cassata siciliana, one of the sweetest Sicilian desserts there is!

Cassata siciliana, one of the sweetest Sicilian desserts there is!

The Sicilian cassata is a traditional Italian cake from Palermo and Messina in Sicily. It’s made from a round sponge cake soaked in fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, candied fruit peels and a cream similar to the smooth ricotta cheese found in cannoli. Then, it’s covered with a marzipan shell, traditionally a pastel pink or green icing and sugar or candied fruit decorations. This classic Sicilian dessert is a sugar bomb, and a must-try! (For more info on the best foods of Sicily, check out our handy food guide to the region right here)


Photo by John Rudolph Mueller

You really know that cannoli are good when you see them empty in the window. That means they’ll add the cream fresh as you order! Photo by John Rudolph Mueller

Also from Sicily, cannoli are rolls of fried Italian pastry dough filled with a creamy ricotta filling. The ends can then be sprinkled with chocolate chips, pistachio crumbs or candied fruits. Just remember that the singular of cannoli is cannolo, so be careful about ordering “one cannoli.” Or don’t worry about it, we highly recommend that you try the chocolate, pistachio and candied fruit flavors!


Photo by Francesco Pozzi

Torrone can be made with nearly any kind of nut, like the hazelnut torrone shown here. Photo by Francesco Pozzi

is a traditional Italian dessert during winter and Christmas. Shaped like a candy bar, it’s somewhere between an Italian cake and a confection. It’s made from honey, sugar and egg white, with toasted almonds. Similar to the french nougat or the Spanish turrón, The bar is usually brittle and sweet, but there are many varieties, including soft and chewy, pistachio-flavored or even chocolate. Though many cities in Italy have their own recipe for torrone, the traditional version from Cremona, Lombardy is the most wide-spread. In fact, Cremona is so serious about their recipe they have a torrone festival every year.


Milan dessert

Panettone, a Christmas treat in Milan

Another Christmas treat, Panettone is a typical sweet bread filled with candied fruit and raisins. A staple gift during Christmastime, the dome-shape bread has many “sister” breads throughout Italy, such as the pandolce from Genova or the star-shaped pandoro from Verona. Here’s more on panettone and Italy’s other regional Christmas cakes.

There’s one more Italian pastry that we love so much, we want to keep it a secret. But if you join our Tastes & Traditions of Rome: Testaccio Food & Market Tour, we’ll let you in on it! Trust us when we say that there’s no sweeter way to start your morning.

Italy's cakes and pastries are among the best in the world. Find out which are the best right here!

by Gina Mussio

View more by Gina ›

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