Last Updated on September 22, 2023 by Laura Teso
I’m doing this for you. So that you can be prepared. I know from experience that sometimes it can be hard to understand foreign menus. In this post I’m listing all the most popular desserts you can find at the restaurant in Italy. Of course, at certain high end venues they probably have less traditional and more creative desserts. But on average the following ones are the more common. Well, let’s start then.
Most popular Italian desserts
This is a list of the desserts you may most probably find at Italian restaurants. Always keep in mind that in Italy there are many differences between regions. I live in the North East and always describe my own experience.
Torta di mele: simple but always much appreciated, especially by men (according to my experience), it’s the Italian equivalent of an apple pie. Sometimes accompanied by custard on the side. But not always, sadly.
Millefoglie: millefeuille (usually with custard and strawberries) is another very popular dessert in many restaurants. It consists of a certain number of puff pastry layers, which alternate with layers of Chantilly, custard or diplomatic cream. Plus the fruit. Strawberries are not the only option. There can be raspberries, peaches, ect. But 90% of the time it’s strawberries.
Salame al Cioccolato: it literally means chocolate salami, and really has the shape of a salami. But of course its main ingredients are chocolate, butter, broken cookies, eggs (not always), and sometimes nuts. The portion usually consists of 2-3-4 slices. It is often served in rustic places like osterie e trattorie.
Crostata: the word derives from crosta, crust, referring to its short pastry case. It’s basically a tart, usually filled with fresh fruit, jam or custard. Or also custard and fresh fruits. So it’s always better to ask if it’s not specified on the menu. I say this because they often write Crostata della casa, of the house, without adding the actual flavor.
Dolci al cucchiaio
Dolci al cucchiaio are “spoon desserts”. This category basically includes all those sweets like custard, puddings, and the like, which require a spoon.
Tiramisù: it is probabily the best known and most beloved Italian dessert, originating from my region, the Veneto (or Friuli, but let’s not start an argument here). It’s a scrumptious and rich treat made with layers of coffee-soaked ladyfingers and a mascarpone cheese cream, dusted with cocoa powder. But I have to admit: I love it as long as it’s not too soaked in coffee (otherwise it’s too bitter for my palate). Its name literally means (I write it all one word as in Italian): pullmeup. So cute!
Panna Cotta: literally meaning cooked cream, it is a sort of flan made from cream, sugar, and gelatin. It is usually served with red fruit coulis, chocolate or a caramel sauce on top.
Semifreddo: meaning semi cold, it’s a very popular brick shaped dessert. It may seem similar to gelato. But it’s actually made by mixing whipped cream and Italian meringue. The flavors can be different, depending on the restaurant: chocolate, hazelnut, nougat, pistachio, fruit.
Tortino al cioccolato col cuore caldo: this is usually my go-to dessert. The one I can’t resist. It’s a chocolate mini cake with a melting heart. Always best when they also serve you a gelato scoop on the side. This way you can mix the warm chocolate lava with the cold melting gelato. Somebody says it got old soon. How dare they? Old but gold, I say.
Tortino: other than chocolate tortino, you can find a wide variety of mini cakes. For example pear and chocolate, apples, apricots, etc. Depending on the season and on the chef’s creativity.
Creme brulé: you could also find it on the menu as Crema catalana. It’s the classic French vanilla custard, topped with a crispy layer of caramelized sugar. It doesn’t meet my personal taste but my husband loves it.
Meringata: meringue pie is very 80’s but still popular in some places. It is a cake in which layers of meringue and whipped cream alternate. You can find it plain or with chocolate chips or fruits.
Cheesecake: yes, sometimes in Italian restaurants they serve cheesecake. Sadly it is often nothing like the original cheesecake. Pity cause I love it. Biscuit layer good, fruit topping good. But the problem is usually the cheese part. Not sour at all but made with plain ricotta or cream. So overall it’s too sweet and cloying. There are exceptions, but I often prefer not to take risks. PS they usually serve it in a glass or glass jar.
Italian desserts for those who prefer simple stuff
Biscotti secchi: in many places you may find as dessert “biscotti or biscotteria”, i.e. a selection of local cookies. For people who don’t like creamy or elaborate sweets. In my region they often serve Zaeti, traditional cookies made with cornflour and raisins.
Sorbetto: i.e. sherbet. Ideal on those occasions in which the lunch or dinner was quite heavy. Depending on the restaurant, it may or may not have alcohol (Prosecco or such), and it may or may not contain milk. So you better ask. The most popular is sorbetto al limone, lemon sherbet.
Gelato: this creamy and fresh delish is very common in several restaurants as a simple and satisfying dessert when you don’t feel like eating a heavier and more challenging piece of cake.
Affogato: it’s a gelato scoop in an espresso cup. Affogato means in fact drowned.
They are not proper cakes or something but they are often available as desserts for those who prefer an healthier choice.
Macedonia: also perfect when you’re already rather full but you still want something fresh, macedonia is the Italian word for fruit salad. The name refers to Makedonia, the Greek region, where once lived peoples with different traditions and languages.
Ananas: ananas is the Italian word for pineapple. What you get is generally a quarter of a pineapple in a saucer, already pre-cut so you can eat it with a small fork. Why do Italians call it ananas, so different from pineapple? The word derives from the one used by the Guaranì, South American natives: nana, meaning excellent fruit.
These are just a few of the many delightful Italian desserts you can find in Italy. Or better in my area. Each region has its own unique specialties.
For example if you’re in Naples you will surely find babà, a baked pastry soaked in rum. In Sicily the cannoli, deep-fried cylindrical pastry shells filled with ricotta, are super popular. In Emilia Romagna the traditional cake is zuppa inglese, alternating layers of custard (and sometimes also chocolate custard) and sponge cake soaked in alchermes. Zuppa inglese literally means “English soup” because the original recipe (invented at the Estense court in Ferrara in the Middle Ages) included rum, typically drunk by English sailors at the time. But the list could go on and on.
What abouot you? What is your favorite Italian dessert?