Carnevale is all about indulgence. Costumes, masks, alcohol, parties and especially deep-fried sweet treats are all consumed with fervour across Italy to push through the slog of winter and enjoy frivolously before the seriousness of Lent marks the rhythm of life. So go ahead, eat all the chiacchiere and enjoy!
It’s not always easy to stick to those New Year’s resolutions about dropping a few pounds while travelling in Italy. Sure, the Mediterranean diet is one of the world’s healthiest, but this carbohydrate-rich fare paired with tempting wines is so delicious that it’s easy to overindulge.
It doesn’t help, of course, that just a few short weeks after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays are over and the annual dieting season begins, Carnevale kicks off. This month-long festival before Easter is celebrated across Italy with whimsical costumes, exuberant parades and parties, and a hefty serving of fried and sugared delicacies. If you happen to find yourself in Italy during the Carnevale season, put your diet on hold and indulge in one of the delectable regional treats that are only around for a few weeks during this time of year!
The most ubiquitous Carnevale treat, chiacchiere (their playful name means “chit-chat” or “gossip,” evoking their fleeting yet wickedly satisfying delight) are found in kitchens and pastry shops from Sicily to the Dolomites during the weeks leading up to Easter. These thinly rolled strips of sweet dough are deep-fried until golden and crisp and served dusted with sugar. The recipe is simple to make at home, which is why platters heaped high with flaky goodness are served at any self-respecting Carnevale party. According to legend, this Carnevale sweet has roots in ancient Rome, when frictilia—strips of sweet pastry deep-fried in pork fat—were served to celebrate the end of winter.
Each region of Italy has their own playful name for chiacchiere, inspired by their irregular shape: Tuscans call them cenci, or rags, while other areas know them as nastrini (ribbons), frappe (fringe), or lattughe (lettuce). Their lightness deceives you into indulging in much more than you intended, which is why in Liguria they are called bugie, or lies.
Want to try your hand at making chiacchiere (or cenci…or frappe…) at home during Carnevale this year? Take a look at our recipe here: It’s not Carnevale without deep-fried desserts
Italy’s undisputed capital of Carnevale is Venice, and the Floating City’s traditional frìtole fried cakes are a treat so beloved that they are often made year round. Their generic name is frittelle—though near the Austrian border they are known as krapfen and filled with fruit preserves, whereas in Tuscany they are stuffed with custard and dubbed bomboloni—and the highest quality have a crispy, sugar-coated outer crust keeping the inside moist and chewy.
Legend holds that the first frittelle was created by Pope Pius V’s personal chef, Bartolomeo Scappi, and were once made only at dedicated fritoleri, or fry shops. These shops were so numerous and powerful in Medieval Venice that a professional fritoleri guild was formed. But by the 19th century, their heyday had ended, and Venetians could satisfy their frìtole craving at any local pasticceria or bakery.
Sweet, fried dough is found in many shapes and forms across Italy. Though the further south you look, the more likely versions are served soaked in a honey or sugar syrup. Castagnole, meaning small chestnuts, can be found in most pastry shops or even offered as dessert in restaurants during Carnevale in central Italy. Further south, zeppole are formed in small spheres or rings before being fried and filled or topped with custard. The most charming version is the mini-fritters about the size of marbles— known as struffoli in Naples and cicerchiate in central Italy—covered with a sweet syrup, piled into a mound or ring, and topped with coloured sprinkles.
To Each Their Own…Carnevale Treat
Italy has a number of towns known for their unique Carnevale celebrations, and each celebration is sweetened with a traditional local sweet. In the Sicilian town of Acireale, famous for its parade of massive Carnevale floats, revellers feast on la pignolata or la pignoccata: small spheres of fried sweet dough, soaked in honey and gathered into single-serving balls before being dusted with colorful sprinkles and chopped Sicilian almonds. In Putignano, which hosts the most famous Carnevale celebration in Puglia, locals feast on farinella. This dish dates from the 14th century, and is made of toasted chickpeas or barley, ground and mixed with sugar or dried fruit. Perhaps the most modern sweet is Ivrea’s famed Torta 900, a 19th-century confection invented in the landmark Balla pastry shop by Ottavio Bertinotti. This chocolate sponge cake filled with chocolate mousse is served all year round, but is especially popular during the town’s annual Battle of the Oranges, held each year during Carnivale.
A close relative of the frittella, brighelle are fried dough beignets filled with custard and rolled in sugar. Most commonly made with light choux pastry dough that puffs into an empty shell when fried, brighelle can also be made with yeast dough, coming out more like a small cake doughnut.
Brighelle is named for Brighella, one of the traditional characters from Naples’ historic Commedia dell’arte. Brighella is played with a comically exaggerated lust and greed, and fried brighelle are so tempting that it is hard not to give into your carnal craving to overindulge!
Schiacciata alla Fiorentina
Florence’s traditional Carnevale cake is the famous Schiacciata alla Fiorentina, a single-layer yellow sponge cake flavoured with vanilla and orange peel and topped with powdered sugar with a large fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Florence, in contrasting cocoa powder.
Schiacciata means smashed or pressed, and refers to the flat appearance of this single-layer cake, though richer versions add a layer of whipped cream or custard in the middle, making the cake a bit higher. Many of Florence’s historic pastry shops sell Schiacciata alla Fiorentina during Carnevale, but locals flock to Pasticceria Giorgio to satisfy their sweet tooth.
Feeling disheartened about the chances of sticking to your diet while surrounded by all these sweet treats during Carnevale? Go ahead and indulge…remember that Carnevale ushers in the Quaresima: forty days of purifying penance and self-denial before the Easter celebration!