Neapolitan Sweets

Published February 9, 2011 by Tony

Characteristic desserts

Usually, any country has its speciality, its local product or typical dish and in Italy the situation is no less so. Campania – and Naples in particular – even is famous in the world for some of these legendary products and it could be sufficient to mention pizza, mozzarella or babà, for example.

Many are the dishes and products peculiar to this region but this post is aimed at the sweets and so you will read more about other products in successive posts. Campanians start their day with sweets, end their meal with sweets (especially during holidays), and punctuate their day with sweets, is this weird for you? Most Neapolitans have breakfast with croissant or with “graffe” (a sort of fried doughnut) together coffee or cappuccino. Many Italian families buy pastries on Sunday or on some important holiday to eat at the end of the meal. In the late afternoon most young people have a snack with some (industrial) cake.

Naples has some typical dessert or sweets and most of them are connected with holiday or festival and for that it will be easier for me to list them according to the different holidays.


Struffoli, Roccocò, Mustacciuoli, Raffiuoli, Susamielli, Pasta Reale, Sapienze, Divinoamore, Torrone.


Pastiera, Casatiello or Tortano.


Chiacchiere (angel winds), Sanguinaccio, Migliaccio.

Saint Joseph or Father’s day


Then, there are some common pastry linked with no festivity as Babà, Sfogliatelle and Taralli.

But, let’s analyze one by one these products now. I’m sorry if put no recipe because products are too many and for the most important speciality it will be easy for you to find the recipe by Internet, in the case you need it.

Struffoli are a sort of fried doughnut balls, more or less a quarter-inch long and slightly crunchy, soaked in honey and covered in sugar-sprinkles and candid fruits. It is a so popular dessert that during Christmas time there is no family without a plate of Struffoli on the table.


Roccocò or Rococò (referred to the plural) a sort of crunch cookie with almonds inside, round shaped with a hole inside. It’s a dry and tough biscuit that looks like a dark squashed doughnut with a dough made of almonds and candied fruit. Roccocò’s etymology comes from “roccia artificiale” (artificial rock), because this Christmas sweet, presented on every table in Campania from the Advent day and for the whole holiday season, is very hard and almost marble-like. The original recipe says that the traditional Roccocò has to be kneaded on a large working bench where in the middle of a big mound of flour will be put sugar, white pepper, cloves, candied fruit peels, half an orange ground peel, one or two drops of cinnamon essence, a drop of ammonia and finely roasted and ground almonds together with whole almond nuts. The base is worked for a long time, continually adding water, until the right consistency is reached. The dough then is divided into little rings, brushed with eggs and baked until they go brown. Rococò, as any dessert, is often consumed after a meal with liquors and in Campania the famous “Limoncello” is one.

Mostaccioli or Mustacciuoli are biscuits of different consistencies depending on the dough, which is made of honey, flour, water, yeast and spices. The dough is left to rest and then baked. In the end the mustaccioli are covered with white or black icing, obtained adding powdered cocoa to the white one. They have a rhombus shape and are called this way because their squared shapes resemble moustaches.

Raffiuoli or Italianized in Raffioli, are made from a dough similar to the sponge cake and covered with a white (or differently colored) frosting made of sugar (jam on an icing sugar base).  Raffioli are rarely produced at home and can be found in cake shops around Campania. They have round shape and are doughy. Its recipe is ancient and quite challenging: egg whites and yolk are whipped with sugar and then mixed with more sugar, half a lemon, a quarter of a spoon of ammonia water, half a pack of vanilla and stiffly beaten egg whites. It’s all put in a piping bag used to prepare pieces of pasta, which are 14 cm long each and are folded on greased and floured oven plates. After baking the pasta pieces enlarge and have to be taken out and left to cool. Then they’re covered in icing sugar and brushed with apricot jam. They’re covered with more icing sugar and left to dry again. The icing can be prepared a few days before gaining flavour. Before using it on the Raffioli it has to be soaked in hot water, sugar and a pinch of baking soda on a slow flame. After it boils for a few minutes, it’s taken out and poured in a round bowl and stirred until it becomes white and creamy.

Susamielli are sweet in the shape of “S” of Neapolitan cuisine typical of the period of Christmas.
Are prepared with flour, sugar, almonds and honey, and flavored with cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg. We typically buy along with other sweets, especially Rococo and Mustacciuoli.  In local slang “susamiello”, maybe for the biscuit’s hardness, is used to indicate a boring or heavy person. A variant of elliptical shape, are the so-called Wisdom that once were prepared by Clare nuns in the convent of Santa Maria della Sapienza in Sorrento. The Dominican nuns of the church of Sapienza during Masaniello’s rebellion tried to protect their monastery by offering sweets to the people and the soldiers. Susamielli are often sold with Raffiuoli, Mustaccioli and the most popular Rococò.

Pasta Reale really is the name of the basic dough (Royal pastry) used to prepare these desserts but we Neapolitans refers to the small and colored pastries usually bought in cake shops. They aren’t expressly made during Christmas time because we can find them at any time in the confectioner’s. Pasta Reale is a marzipan,  well-known in Sicily too, made by cooking a strong syrup of sugar and water and then adding freshly ground almonds. Almond extract enhances the taste. The mixture is kneaded till smooth (like bread dough) and then shaped to get different forms, usually circular, rhombus or fruits shaped then decorated or coloured. They looks like the famous “Cassata” with a white icing spread externally on.

Divino-Amore, referred to the plural, usually are pinkish elliptical rose water flavoured marzipan (Royal pastry) covered with an orange chocolate glaze. These pastries take the name from the homonymous monastery. Confectionery was a common occupation for nuns at least from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, in Naples as well as elsewhere. As a result, in Naples there arose a peculiar geography based on the fame and singularity of the pastries baked in each monastery. The divino amore (“God’s love”), was invented in the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena.

   Torrone (of Benevento), There’s different kinds of “Torrone di Benevento”: the white one with almonds, white “Torrone cupedia” with nuts, soft white Torrone with almonds and the crunchy Torroncino (small torrone) covered in chocolate. They all have common traits: they’re dry, sweet and friable. The classic Torrone from Benevento is made of simple ingredients: egg white, honey, nuts and almonds. Soft or hard, white or chocolate, with almonds or nuts, it’s a superb treat, almost royal. Art and tradition, past and present are mixed in harmony: the choice of the ingredients, work and cooking are made with the same dedication of old times gone. Traditional artisan methods and respect for the old recipes guarantee quality and genuiness.

Pastiera like Roccocò is the most popular and celebrated Neapolitan dessert and it cannot be completely appreciated unless it is prepared in the authentic manner, with a very delicate pastry crust and the wheat kernels which are at the core of its meaning. The origin of Pastiera is very old and it can be traced back to pagan cults when it was prepared to celebrate the spring arrival even. Someone affirms that the recipe, probably, derives from the breads made from milk and honey that were commonly eaten during the baptism ceremonies the night of Easter when Constatine was Emperor. The modern version of this cake was invented at the convent of San Gregorio Armeno, which at the time was located in Naples where a nun decided to make a cake using the ingredients that symbolized life and the resurrection. However, there is another ancient legend surrounding the creation of the Pastiera. Some believe that the siren Partenope would come out from the water of the Gulf of Naples every spring, delighting people with her lovely songs. Apparently on year, the people of Naples fell so in love with her songs that decided to offer her the most precious products of their land. Seven of the most beautiful girls of the area gave the beautiful siren flour, ricotta, eggs, wheat, orange flower water and spices, including cinnamon and sugar. Partenope, thrilled with her gifts, decided to return to her home under the sea and to offer her gifts to the Gods. To honor her beauty, the Gods mixed the ingredients together, creating a cake as delicious as the voice of the siren: the Pastiera napoletana. This centuries-old cake, is a dessert of short crust pastry (called pasta frolla) stuffed with a mixture of ricotta cheese, boiled wheat, eggs, spices and candied fruit. The short-crust pastry is crisp with a golden yellow colour, while its stuffing is a soft, despite its intense flavor and aroma change accordingly with the used spices. Pastiera appears in innumerable versions, each made according to a closely guarded family recipe. The major variations are in the amount of “acqua di arance” (orange’s water) or “Millefiori” (thousand flowers), a sort of non-alcoholic very fragrant essence, in the use of “crema pasticcera” (pastry cream), which some families include and others do not and in the amount of cinnamon powder.  You can recognize a Pastiera by the strips of pastry crisscrossed across the top of the cake like a fruit flan. The main and particular ingredient of the Pastiera is the grain (wheat) . It requires presoaked grain, which takes time to prepare (Neapolitan delicatessens now sell canned presoaked grain) that must be cooked with the milk over an extremely low flame for at least four hours, or until the grains come apart and the milk has been absorbed, so that the mixture is dense and creamy. It needs fresh ricotta stirred with sugar and yolks then adding the boiled grain, the orange water, the cinnamon, the candied fruit and vanilla. This creamy compound will be the filling. The pie crust is made with a mound of flour adding lard, sugar and yolks then handling the dough as little as possible till to obtain an uniform dough. It will be pressed and rolled out to line the pan, to fill then with the filling. The cake is traditionally served in a 8-10 inch diameter round metal pan with a two-inch rim; Neapolitan pastry shops sell the Pastiera in the pan and it is presented so at even the most elegant table. It is said that the Pastiera was the only thing that could cheer up Queen Maria Teresa of Hapsburg.  After her husband, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, the King of the two Sicilies, was able to convince her to taste a slice of Pastiera, the Queen, also known as the “queen who never smiles,” smiled in satisfaction. Pastiera is a miracle dish, like many others in Italian gastronomic culture, a dessert with its own allure due not to its goodness only but, to a subconscious love that is transmitted from generation to generation.

Casatiello is an Italian round bread filled with savoury meat (usually salami) and cheese (as provolone, roman, parmesan) and baked with whole eggs (as optional) with or without shell (if boiled), while the sweet version with candied fruit and nuts. Lard, yeast, salt and the flour are combined all together, adding as much water as necessary to get a rather soft dough but sticky and damp. It has then to raise in a lukewarm place. When the dough has leavened, is put on a pastry board and greased with lard kneading with the grated cheese (some small pieces too), pepper and the diced salame. Then the musky dough is shaped in a cylindrical form and put in a greased baking pan (10-12 in. diameter) with a hole in the middle to form a sort of ring. Here, it’s time to put the eggs on the top, a little bit stuck inside before baking. While cocking it has to become brown externally and dry inside. The salt Casatiello can’t be considered a sweet in fact, we eat it during the meals as a second course or as (high-calorie) snack! I mentioned it here, because is a very common and popular Easter dish also if many persons prepare it any time they want during the year.  It is full of symbolism as many Italian foods are, where meat represents animals which ritually were sacrificed in exchange for fertility while the cheese represents the milk of the lamb. Each bite gives an explosion of taste, starting from the soft bread flavored with lard and cheese till the meat pieces.

Chiacchiere is a fried cake prepared in the entire Campania region during the Mardi Gras period. They have a distinctive shape and consistency: tender and crispy, and are cut into irregular ribbons that are entwined in different ways. The dough is made of sugar, flour, water and eggs mixed to a drops of liqueur. After being entwined, the chiacchiere are fried and once carefully dried on absorbent paper, they are sprinkled with a lot of powdered sugar. Chiacchiere are prepared together with Sanguinaccio, a chocolate cream in which to dip and taste these sort of tasty biscuit.

Sanguinaccio is a cream made of chocolate and milk. Once, according to the original old recipe, pig’s blood had to be added too, no longer in use now for sanitary reasons. It is part of the old folkloristic recipes made at Mardi Gras and used to honor the killing of the pig, of which nothing is thrown away, not even blood. Ingredients are sugar, egg yolks (optional), flour, milk, dark chocolate and cocoa, which are all mixed together and cooked in pots where they have to boil slowly – stirred continuously – until the compound became creamy. Sanguinaccio is served cold, dressed with candied fruit and chocolate pralines, and usually with chiacchiere or soft biscuits like “savoiardi”.

Migliaccio is a typical winter cake made during the Mardi Gras season too, round in shape and 2 in. high. The dough is made out of semolina (flour from millet), ricotta, eggs, milk, sugar, salt, candied orange cubes, cinnamon, vanilla and orange aromas. The ingredients are mixed and cooked together in a copper or iron pan. After leaving the dough on the stove for an hour and stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, it’s fitted in a round pan and baked in the oven, until the surface becomes a pleasant golden yellow color.

Zeppole (of San Giuseppe)  is a typical dessert of Fathers day on the 19th of March, San Joseph feast.  A simple circular puff dough, with a cavity in the middle, baked or fried in boiling hot oil. The hollow is filled with cream (Confectioner´s Custard) and decorated with wild cherries in syrup and the pastry then dusted with powdered sugar. It is like a cream puff just a delicate ‘pâte à choux’. You don’t have to mix-up the fritters zeppoles, the savoury ones, also very popular in Naples (sold in friggitorie, fried food shops or peddlers’ stands – see my prior post here: Zeppole of San Giuseppe. It is told that Zeppole born in the XVIII century in Naples, the former Capital of the then Southern Kingdom of the Two Sicily (the biggest among the Italian States), in one of the many convents, in which the nuns used to prepare delicious sweets. The nuns of Saint Basil, in the monastery of San Gregorio Armeno, were probably the inventors of a new sweet very similar to the modern zeppola. Some claim that the “new” Zeppole were made for the first time in another southern city, Bari, the Capital of the Region of Puglia, while someone else mention Sicily as the land where this dessert was invented.

Babà, the Italian one known worldwide as Neapolitan Babà is the universal symbol of Italian sweetness. Not by chance, “You’re a babà” is said to a person with a sweet character as well as one extremely skilled in performing thorny tasks. It is a rich small cake with a weird unusual shape, tall and a bit narrowed at one side like a mushroom, soaked in liquor (rum, as a rule), sometimes (optional) filled with whipped cream or custard. Since Babà is a very simple dessert based on a bread dough only, its secret is in the leavening that has to produce a very spongy and soft paste. There is a nice legend about this dessert’s birth. It is connected with the name of exiled king of Poland Stanisław Bogusław Leszczyński (1677 – 1766) whose daughter Maria Leszczyńska was French king Louis XV’s wife. Though the Polish sovereign was reputed a true Polish gentleman, he was said to be of ill temper and with good appetite. Once he was served a pastry, this one tasted too dry to him and in a burst he threw the dish with the sweet thing breaking a bottle of rum. The pastry fell into the rum; Stanisław tried it and found it excellent. As legend says, the new dessert evoked sweet eastern associations and the king called it baba – as the well-known Arabian character’s name, Ali Baba. Talking about the origin of the name, undoubtedly there are some analogies with the Russian Easter baba, babka in Polish, besides, about the pastry itself, a similar one was spread almost all over Europe – within the Germanic territory its name derived from kugel (ball), and within the baba in Byelorussia. Lastly, the name babà aside from giving exquisite allusions, becomes sweet in the pronounce for the close consonances and because formed from the first letters of the alphabet. Baba became a delicacy in France too where some years later changed in shape and composition and was called Babà Au Rhum. From Paris to Naples (Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) the step was short because Maria Carolina married with king Ferdinand of Naples and here the pronunciation brought the name to change in Babà or Babbà.  After a while, within a range of culinary experiments, the baba was among the fashionable culinary Neapolitan dishes and soon became a traditional dessert.  One of the last variation born in Capri and Sorrento where confectioners use Limoncello liqueur instead of rum but, in Naples nowadays it you can find Babà with cream, with Chantilly cream, with wild strawberry and chocolate.

Sfogliatelle. It is said that about 400 years ago a nun from the hermitage of Santa Rosa at Conca dei Marini, near Salerno, while was preparing a cake made a mistake with the dosage and she decided to experiment with a new creation. The Abbess was so happy for the new recipe that decided to dedicate it to Santa Rosa, founder of the order and prepare it every year on the 30th of August, the Saint’s religious celebration day.  “Santa Rosa” was made of many thin overlapping layers, in the shape of a hood with a filling of cream. In the 19th century the recipe came out of the monastery, with some variations: it was reduced in size, dried fruit was substituted with candied fruit and the cream with a cream made with ricotta. “Only the patience and free time of women locked in convents could allow for such work, stretching strips of dough several meters long and only a millimeter thick”. It became the specialty of a tavern in the center of the city and called Sfogliatella (flaky). The tavern became a specialized laboratory and the recipe spread all around the city in its two variations: “riccia” (ruffled) – the most known – and “frolla” (plain). “Riccia” refers to the shell-shaped version that most of you probably know, made with tissue-thin dough that is stretched and then rolled to create overlapping, irresistibly crisp layers. The “frolla” variation features soft, tender, flaky dough that literally melts in the mouth. Both pastries contain the same delicious filling, made from semolina, ricotta, sugar, cinnamon, eggs, and bits of candied citrus. Today in Naples Sfogliatella is made daily and offered while it’s still warm, fragrant and smells of orange flowers and icing sugar. It’s so famous that became part of a popular saying “Napule tre cose tene belle: ‘o mare, ‘o Vesuvio, e ‘e sfugliatelle” (Naples has three beautiful things: sea, Vesuvio and the sfogliatelle).

Taralli are a snack mainly and there even is some specific bakery producing and selling them. Like a sort of salt biscuit ring shaped, they are mostly dry and crunchy with entire roasted almonds inside. It’s a dough got adding lard and pepper and then baked giving back a tasty biscuit to be served with wine or beer.

21 comments on “Neapolitan Sweets

    • Sorry, I did not put the recipes ’cause are too many desserts and sweets, with some (industrial one) not esy to prepare at home. In the case you want someone in particular, pick a couple of them and I’ll choose the most achievable sending you the recipe….

      • hello from new york city!
        please, i’d love to have the recipe for the taralli and the rococo.
        thank you!
        i’ve never seen this type of taralli, i want to make them!!!

      • I dunno when and if I’ll post the recipe you mention. Meantime you might find something on Internet. cheers

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  • I was wondering if you have the recipe for the mostaccioli, divino-amore and roccoco. my grandfather baked them but did not leave behind any recipes. I would really appreciate it.

  • Hi , interested in A recipe for “Taralli are a snack mainly and there even is some specific bakery producing and selling them. Like a sort of salt biscuit ring shaped, they are mostly dry and crunchy with entire roasted almonds inside. It’s a dough got adding lard and pepper and then baked giving back a tasty biscuit to be served with wine or beer.

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