Food /
Food culture

Dolci di Carnevale

When I moved to Italy, every little thing was fascinating to me: The people, the language, the art, the fashion…and, of course, the food. By now, the entire world has caught on and appreciates the Italian cuisine for its pizza and traditional pasta dishes. In fact, the country and culture have become synonymous with good food and fresh ingredients. Blood red tomatoes, brilliantly white buffalo mozzarella, basil the color of freshly cut grass… What surprises many people is the incredible regional variety in Italy’s kitchens: from the tables of Sicilian restaurants being laden with fish and seafood to the hearty and comforting dishes of Alto-Adige, there isn’t a gourmet in the world that Italy can’t satisfy. It is strange to me, then, that most Italian sweets seem shamefully underrated abroad. Move over, Tiramisù!

From the very first time I walked into a Roman café, I was hooked. Piles of pastries, fried, baked, whipped, and layered, awaited me behind polished glass partitions every morning. Having grown up in a culture that eats savory food for all three meals of the day (and sometimes even for dessert!), this was a complete novelty. 

Let it be a testimony to the Italian pursuit of pleasure that cream puffs or a slice of cake are considered a perfectly acceptable breakfast. And why wouldn’t they want to indulge in those sweet delights first thing in the morning? Italians eat a very healthy and balanced Mediterranean diet throughout the day, after all. And, being famous for their go-big-or-go-home attitude, they make no exception when it comes to their dolci.

But there’s more to the Italian sweet tooth than simple indulgence. Getting together for a coffee and a little treat is good for the soul. Italians understood long ago that food and socializing go hand in hand and have created an entire culture around it. It isn’t unusual, for example, to see the young Romans flock to a pasticceria at four in the morning after a night out to grab a freshly baked cornetto on the way home.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Italians go all out once a year and upstage their traditional sweets with a variety of seasonal specialties. That time of the year is known as Carnevale.

The origins of Carnevale trace all the way back to ancient Rome when people hosted annual festivities to celebrate and worship their Gods. After the introduction of Christianity and the consequent prohibition of all pagan ceremonies, the church and the people came to a compromise: Carnevale turned into a period of celebration before the 40 days of Lent. Therefore, everything that had to be given up during Lent was glorified and consumed in excess: alcohol, meat, and, of course, sweets. 

Today, the bakeries still serve mountains of rich, sugary treats in memory of this religious custom. In true Italian tradition, the ingredients are few and fairly simple, the presentation extravagant. Fried frappe, crunchy chiacchiere, and cream-topped zeppole are handmade following ancient recipes and decorated with powdered sugar or candied fruit. Even if Carnevale isn’t your thing, these beauties are sure to chase away the winter blues!

Some refer to them as tzípulas, frittelle, sfinge, or, most commonly, zeppole, but one thing is certain: these little treats look as sweet as they taste. The little puffs of dough are fried until golden brown, crowned with a dollop of cream, and decorated with a cherry or chocolate. And if that weren’t enough, you can also get them filled with a sweet ricotta filling.

Another absolute star of Carnevale are struffoli, little fried balls of dough that are piled high and glazed in honey. To top it all off, they are usually decorated with bits of candied fruit and colorful sprinkles. Definitely not for the faint of heart! Maybe it’s the convenient size, the allure of the sticky glaze, or the beautiful presentation, but if there is a plate of struffoli sitting on the kitchen table, I guarantee you won’t be able to stop yourself from nicking one every time you walk past. 

My personal favorites are without a doubt the chiacchiere – a Roman version of the famous frappe and a real, if slightly messy, delight. Whether they are called “chiacchiere” because they seem to “chatter” while you eat them, or because they are the perfect addition to a caffè and a little chitchat, however, the Romans seem to be in two minds about.