Christmas in Italy is sweet! Here are eight traditional desserts and ideal wine pairings that will have you singing "Fa la la" with the first bite.
Even though I am Italian born and bred, my country’s traditions never cease to amaze me. Every town and village has their very own dishes and delicacies, and locals will always tell you that their food is “the best.” And of course, this holds true for the most traditional Italian Christmas desserts, too.
Italian desserts are tasty and diverse – travel from the top to the bottom of Italy and you’ll have the chance to try Austrian-inspired desserts in South Tyrol, Sicilian cannoli, tiramisu, and naturally lots of yummy gelato. Italians do indeed have a sweet tooth – walk around any Italian city on Sunday and you’ll see locals carrying trays of pasticcini, bite-size desserts often offered at the end of Sunday lunch along a glass of bubbly Moscato d’Asti.
Speaking of food, Christmas is a time when local culinary traditions are displayed with grandeur all over the country – tortellini and roasted capon are often found on the tables of Lombardy, Piedmont, and Emilia-Romagna, while capitone (fried eel) is the centerpiece of a Neapolitan Christmas.
What about desserts? Every Italian region has a different sweet treat to offer at the end of Christmas lunch. Here I’ve included my eight favorite Christmas desserts from Italy, roughly listed from north to south!
8 Classic Italian Christmas desserts
Piedmont – Torrone d’Alba
Torrone is Italy’s version of nougat, a mixture of honey, sugar and almonds that was already popular in Roman times. The name torrone means “big tower,” and it probably originates from the Medieval use to build large castle-shaped sweets with honey and almonds. Nowadays, torrone is a popular after-dinner snack – the Piedmont version uses toasted hazelnuts of the local Nocciola Piemonte IGP variety instead of almonds, and it’s popular at Christmas time all across the region.
Try it with: Barolo Chinato, especially if you happen to find the chocolate-covered torrone.
Lombardy – Panettone
Panettone is Italy’s most famous Christmas export – in case you never heard of it, it’s a sweet bread full of raisins and orange zest and baked in a distinctive dome shape. It was created in the early 20th century as an affordable dessert, and it was taken half way across the world by Italian immigrants. It is now popular in South America, US and anywhere there’s a sizeable Italian population. Most Italian families will have panettone at Christmas time, but you can be sure to find it everywhere in Milan, the birthplace of panettone. It is sometimes served with mascarpone custard – just what you need after Christmas lunch!
Try it with: Moscato d’Asti, and to make sure you find good quality, get a bottle with “Canelli” on the label (a prized sub-region).
Liguria – Pandolce
Pandolce means “sweet bread,” and this is exactly what pandolce is – a sweet bread loaf baked with raisins, candied citrus, and sometimes pine nuts. It’s not as fluffy as panettone and contains less butter. A local Genoa friend joked that this is due to the – let’s say – thrifty nature of Ligurian people, but in fact it is believed that pandolce was adapted from an ancient Persian recipe to produce a long-lasting sweet bread that could be taken on lengthy sea voyages.
Try it with: Passito Golfo dei Poeti IGT, made from vermentino, Liguria’s most well-known white grape.
Veneto – Pandoro
At Christmas time, Italians can be divided into two groups: those who eat panettone, and those who prefer pandoro, a raised butter cake baked in a star-shaped mold. Pandoro originates from the city of Verona, and it’s traditionally served dusted with powdered sugar to resemble the snowy peaks of the Alps. Foodies with a sweet tooth, take note: a delicious way of serving pandoro is cutting it lengthways and spreading nutella between one slice and another.
Emilia-Romagna – Spongata
The spongata is a traditional Christmas pie, popular in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. It is made with shortcrust pastry and a filling of nuts, honey, and candied fruits, the percentages of which vary from recipe to recipe. There are different theories regarding the origin of spongata. Some believe it comes from the Apennines, whereas others interpret it as Sephardic Jewish, as the fruit and nut filling is reminiscent of another sweet dessert eaten during Passover.
Try it with: Romagna Albana Passito
Tuscany – Ricciarelli
What do all Christmas desserts I mentioned so far have in common? They’re all quite rich. It can be a challenge to finish your slice of panettone with mascarpone cream or nutella-stuffed pandoro after a full Christmas lunch! Luckily, Tuscany comes to the rescue with ricciarelli, dainty biscuits made with almond paste and whisked egg whites, as tasty and delicate as they are pretty. Ricciarelli were so special that they were once served at court, and sold in apothecaries alongside herbal remedies and spices from the four corners of the world.
Try it with: Vin Santo, also great with cantucci, hard almond biscotti that are dipped in the Vin Santo.
Umbria – Maccheroni Dolci
This traditional Umbrian dish was born as the “holiday” version of everyday pasta dishes, the staple food of local farmers. Already-cooked pasta is layered with nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, cinnamon, and nutmeg and drizzled with alchermes, a sweet liqueur with a deep red color. Even though the dish is called maccheroni dolci, or “sweet macaroni,” any type of pasta can be used, from tagliatelle to lasagna or even gnocchi.
Try it with: Bianco Passito Lazio IGT, a lesser-known sweet passito from Lazio next door made with the rare native roscetto grape.
Puglia – Cartellate
My favorite Christmas dessert – and really, one of my favorite desserts of all times – are cartellate, typical of the Puglia region. Thin ribbons of pastry made with flour, oil, and white wine are intricately wrapped and arranged in the shape of a crown, and are then fried and soaked in honey or vincotto, a thick paste made by cooking wine until it reduces. The crown shape of the cartellate is supposed to be reminiscent of angels’ haloes, even though the dish is probably Greek in origin.
Try it with: Aleatico Dolce Salento IGT, a sweet red that perfectly pairs with the thick vincotto in between the cartellate folds.
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