It doesn’t matter if you’ve already eaten your weight in pasta or conquered an entire pizza pie. Somehow, a trip to any city’s Little Italy doesn’t seem complete without a final stop for espresso and pastries. Because if any establishment represents the joyous heights of Italian American cuisine, it’s the bakery. The average cannoli and cookie joint doesn’t get by on simplicity or subtlety; its cases are crowded with rows upon rows of ornate and colorful treats that show their festive origins. Each of those desserts speaks of local and regional Italian baking traditions that shifted and found new life after reaching American shores.
And while Italian American bakeries may have emerged out of a lack of a home baking tradition, their creations intended mainly for holidays and celebratory occasions, ambitious bakers have no fear in recreating these delicacies on their own. For anyone who ever wanted to bring home one of every item from the pastry case, here are eleven recipes that will have you baking, whipping, and dunking your way through the Italian dessert canon.
Tiramisu should be dreamy and fluffy, as suggested by the Italian meaning of its name (to “pick or carry me up”). If the layers of biscuits and whipped mascarpone cream don’t do the trick, then the spikes of coffee, cocoa, and rum certainly will. Get our Tiramisu recipe.
2. Cranberry and Pistachio Biscotti
Biscotti get their signature stiffness from a double baking in the oven. This fruit and nut-studded variation adds extra texture to the crumbly state they reach after a dunking in coffee or tea. Get our Cranberry and Pistachio Biscotti recipe.
3. Thumbprint Cookies
The “thumbprint” in this cookie’s name refers to the hand-formed indent at their centers, which serves as a pocket for any sort of jam that fits your fancy. Get the recipe here.
Pignoli give you two textures in one bite-sized treat: the tenderness of their almond cookie base and the crunch of the savory pine nuts that adorn their dome-shaped tops. Get the recipe here.
Making cannoli at home is one the more hardcore baking projects out there. But the results are leagues beyond pretty much anything you could buy. Between the fresh-from-the-fryer crunch of the shells and the lightness of the hand-mixed mascarpone cream, they’re a far cry from the leaden versions you’re probably used to. Get the recipe here.
Soft and chewy amaretti are all about full-frontal almond flavor: not only are the ground nuts the primary ingredient in their dough, they also get a nutty, sweet kick from amaretto liqueur. Get the recipe here.
7. Dough-nut Zeppole
It turns out that pizza dough is good for more than turning out a mean pie. By shaping it into balls and taking it for a whirl through the deep fryer, you end up with these donut hole-like bites that are delectably crisp on the outside and tender beneath. Get our Dough-nut Zeppole recipe.
8. Italian Jam Crostata
If the crust is your favorite part of any tart or pie, this recipe is for you. Its shortbread-style dough is used not only as the crostata’s base, but also as adornment on top in the form of crunchy, knobby crumbles. Get our Italian Jam Crostata recipe.
Torrone calls for only three ingredients (eggs, honey, and nuts). That simplicity is far from basic, however—the chewy nougat still manages to be absolutely stunning with its bejeweled appearance. Get the recipe here.
If your only experience with panettone is that dry, cardboard-like stuff from a box, think again. This recipe does it right, emphasizing its airy, fruit-filled lightness and ethereality. Get our Panettone recipe.
Header image: Cranberry and Pistachio Biscotti from CHOW
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.