Traditional Italian Specialties For The Holidays

Six desserts and appetizers will delight your guests and elevate any festive event.

By John F. Carafoli • Photography By francine Maslow

I spend a lot of time in Italy, especially in the north where my grandparents came from, and the culture there is quite different from ours—particularly when it comes to food. Let’s take desserts, for example. In Italy, the main course is sufficient and satisfying. Desserts might consist of fruit and a piece of cheese, or a simple “sorbetto” (sorbet). But Italians love to go to a pastry shop (pasticceria) in the morning on their way to work or in the afternoon for their sweets, and pair them with a cappuccino or espresso.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Gillian Riley, a brilliant culinary historian and author of “The Oxford Companion to Italian Foods,” who lives in England. I asked her thoughts on Italian Christmas desserts, from a historical perspective.

“My immediate thoughts on Italian Christmas goodies,” she wrote in an email, “is how the pre-Christmas deploy of panettone and panforte look so alluring and tempting. Both are lovely examples of how things get attached to Christmas that were once more universal, like panforte. It was certainly not invented in Siena, but was more a fairly common way of putting up a heady mixture of nuts, dried fruit, spices and honey for winter use.”

Christmas is a time for sharing and gift giving. There is no better gift than a homemade one. It is personal, thoughtful and an act of love. On the following pages, you will find recipes to share with friends and family and to serve for special holiday gatherings. Biscotti, placed on a decorative plate, or a small, attractive jar of marinated olives, would make a great gift.


  1. Antipasto

When entertaining guests for the holidays, serve a beautiful “abbondanza” antipasto artfully presented. Choose foods that have a variety of different tastes. Usually this antipasto is not followed by a first course because it is very substantial. It is a generous dish meant to excite your guests, not to fill them. It is a dish that will create a spirit of conviviality, whether it is before a meal or served at a cocktail party.

Suggested items for an antipasto:

  • Marinated mushrooms
  • Assortment of sliced meats: ruffles of prosciutto,
    salami and mortadella 
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Fresh mozzarella balls
  • Chunks of parmesan cheese
  • Cubes of provolone cheese
  • Assortment of olives
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Small slices of toasted bread or breadsticks are good accompaniments to the ingredients.


2.  Marinated Olives

This is easy to prepare and can be used in the
antipasto recipe. Go to the olive bar in your local
grocery store and select your favorite olives.


  • 4 cups mixed olives of your choice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 5 or 6 fresh rosemary leaves 
  • 2 tablespoons lemon fresh juice
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin oil
  • 8 to 10 black peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, mix well, cover and refrigerate for one to two days, stirring occasionally.


Crostini of Soft Italian Cheeses
and Toasted Walnuts

Crostini is a toast for toppings, similar to bruschetta
(grilled bread)


  • 25 to 30 (1/2-inch) slices of a baguette, cut diagonally
  • Note: depending on the size of the baguette, you may need
  • more than one.
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced 
  • 4 ounces ricotta cheese
  • 8 ounces mascarpone 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup snipped chives
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt 
  • Freshly ground pepper 
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1 7-ounce jar roasted red peppers

In a small bowl, mix together olive oil and garlic. Place the bread on a baking sheet and brush both sides lightly with the olive oil mixture. Toast bread under broiler until lightly browned on both sides. Allow to cool slightly. In a medium bowl, mix together the ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, olive oil, chives, salt and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper to taste. Spread about 3/4 tablespoon of the cheese mixture over the toasted bread, sprinkle lightly with the walnuts and top each with a strip of red pepper.



Panforte di Siena

Makes 16 servings

This unusual Italian treat dates back to the 13th century. It was a dessert I had eaten but never made until Gillian Riley, author of “The Oxford Companion to Italian Food,” mentioned it to me in a conversation. I developed this recipe around the ingredients in Riley’s book.

Breadcrumb pan lining:

  • 1 tablespoon fine breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons ground almonds 

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and adjust oven rack to center position. Butter a 6-inch springform pan. Cut a piece of parchment paper or rice paper to fit pan bottom. Brush paper with butter and fit into pan bottom. If using Asian-style rice paper, wet the paper to make it easier to cut, then trim it to the correct size with scissors. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs and almonds; evenly dust and shake over sides and bottom; remove excess.

For the cake: 

  • 1/2 cup cake flour, plus 1 tablespoon cake flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander 
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1/4 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/2 cup honey 
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar 
  • 1/2 cup candied citron, cut into small pieces 
  • 1/2 cup candied orange peel, cut into small pieces 
  • 1 cup almonds or hazelnuts coarsely chopped and toasted* 
  • Confectioners sugar for top

In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup cake flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg; set aside. In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine honey, butter and sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until mixture comes to a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in candied fruit and almonds or hazelnuts. Sift in flour mixture; stir until well blended. Pour batter into prepared pan. With wet hands, smooth the top slightly. Mix the 1 tablespoon cake flour and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and sift over top. Place cake in center of middle oven rack. Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until the panforte starts to simmer around the edge of the pan. Remove from oven; cool completely on a wire rack. Remove sides of springform pan. Use a knife to peel away parchment or rice paper. Invert panforte again and transfer onto a wire rack. Before serving, dust lightly with powdered sugar. Cut into small wedges to serve. Serve at room temperature. (If saving for future use, do not dust with the sugar. Wrap in several layers of plastic and a layer of aluminum foil and store in an airtight container for several weeks. Freeze up to six months.)


Tiramisu Dip

This is a perfect holiday dessert. Serve in small, fancy individual glasses with biscotti. It will elevate any festive event.


  • 1 8-ounce container of mascarpone cheese, softened 
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
  • 1 8-ounce container whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • Chocolate shavings for garnish
  • Biscotti for serving (recipe follows)

In a medium-size bowl, mix the mascarpone cheese, sugar and espresso powder until smooth. Whip the cream and fold into the cheese mixture; reserve some for topping, if desired. Divide the mixture between six small glasses. Sprinkle with cocoa powder, shaved chocolate and serve with biscotti for dipping.



Yields about 20 biscotti

This is a versatile, traditional Italian holiday cookie. It can be used as a garnish for most desserts.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon anise extract 
  • 1 cup whole almonds, toasted and chopped a few
  • times, not too fine

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine dry ingredients and set aside. Whisk the eggs, vanilla, and almond and anise extracts in your mixer until well blended. Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Dough should be thick and sticky at this point—do not worry and do not add more flour. Scrape the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan.

Flour your hands and shape into a long, flat loaf about 10 inches long and 5 inches wide. This will be kind of messy; so don’t worry about how neat it looks, just try to get it in that general shape. Bake until firm and dry, about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool 10 minutes. Use a long, serrated knife to slice into 1/2-inch wide slices. Lay the slices, cut side down on the baking sheet, and bake another 20 minutes. Turn the slices over and bake 20 minutes more, or until the cookies are a light golden brown. Place biscotti on a rack; cool completely before storing.

Comments are closed.