From dessert-style bread and honey-dipped fried dough to traditional cookies, cakes, and nougat candy, Italians know how to indulge on Christmas. And, since it only comes once a year, it’s probably okay if you do, too. With that in mind, here’s where to find those Italian desserts that, for many, make Christmas feel — and taste — like Christmas.
For holiday revelers with a weakness for sugary fried food: Behold struffoli. Sweet dough rolled into balls the size of marbles, deep fried, slathered in honey, sprinkled with nonpareils, and piled high — this is the dessert that shouts, “Buon Natale!” And, while most Italian bakeries make struffoli at the holidays, Artuso & Sons Bakery & Café in Thornwood specializes in it. Starting with a dough that is similar to that of a cream puff, Bobby Artuso doesn’t fry, he bakes his struffoli so they turn out lighter and healthier, but are still just as crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
Boiano Bakery in Mamaroneck also bakes the struffoli they dish out around the holidays, and at Villa D’oro Italian Deli & Bakery in Croton-on-Hudson, it’s baked simply because it lasts longer that way.
Artuso & Sons Bakery & Café
640 Columbus Ave
258 Mamaroneck Ave
Villa D’oro Deli & Bakery
24 Old Albany Post Rd
Any bakery worth its salt (or, sugar) imports this dome-shaped, light and airy sweet bread to sell around Christmas, but Enzo Cutaia at Fleetwood Pastry Shop in Mount Vernon is the only pro baker we know of who whips it up himself. Traditional candied citrus and raisins dot the dough, made with flour, milk, eggs, butter, and sugar, but while most panettones have a hint of amaretto, Cutaia uses rum, and drops a handful of walnuts into the mix. Out of the oven, this loaf does not tower as high as the ones that arrive from Italy in decorative, gift-like boxes, but it proves itself a worthy competitor with every bite.
A distant cousin, the holiday fruit bread at Port Chester’s The Kneaded Bread vaguely resembles panettone, as it’s loaded with dried fruit and nuts, but it’s fashioned from brioche dough and dusted with powdered sugar. If there’s no room for a hunk after a big Christmas dinner, either is perfetto toasted and buttered the next morning.
Fleetwood Pastry Shop
561 Gramatan Ave
The Kneaded Bread
181 N Main St
Photo courtesy of Pane e Gelato
A sweet staple on the table of Italians at Christmas, torrone is another confection that most Italian bakeries and markets sell, but rarely make. A nougat made of egg whites, honey, sugar, and almonds or other nuts, this traditional candy is usually shaped into slim, chunky bars with a texture that is either hard and crunchy or soft and chewy.
At Pane & Gelato in Eastchester, Paolo Pilano makes torrone for the holidays with almonds, pistachios, and hazelnuts (and slips it into his cakes and gelato for a delectable seasonal surprise).
Pane & Gelato
290 White Plains Rd
Italian cookies aren’t a Christmas-only treat, but bakeries work overtime to keep up with orders around the holidays. Typical pignoli, almond, amaretti, biscotti, and fig cuccidati cookies, to name a few, are in hot demand in December, but none are as festive as rainbow cookies. With a nod to the red, white, and green of Italy’s flag, these almond-flavored, chocolate-topped gems are such huge sellers at Peekskill’s Homestyle Desserts Bakery that Laura Timmons has taken the concept a step further, concocting rainbow cookie cake, cupcakes, and… wait for it… rainbow cookie cheesecake. Timmons also offers baked goods for a rainbow of dietary options, including gluten-free and vegan.
More obscure these days, but still a Christmas favorite of those who’ve spent a holiday in Italy are ricciarelli cookies, which contain a soft, chewy, almond center, and can be found at Homestyle (gluten-free) and at Pane & Gelato under the name riccio d’almond.
Homestyle Desserts Bakery
24 S Water St
If your holiday guests don’t feel they’ve been served dessert unless it’s in the form of a cake (you know who you are), it’s time to break out the ricotta cheesecake. As the name suggests, this luscious beauty contains a whole lotta ricotta, in place of cream cheese, with the optional addition of dried citron pieces, or grain which gives it a rice-like texture, also known as pastiera d’grano, or wheat pie. At Domenick’s Nepperhan Italian Pastry Shop in Yonkers, Domenick Colasuonno has been baking both versions for a good two decades.
Another standout is the ricotta-wheat pie cooked up at Port Chester institution Neri’s Bakery Products, Inc., where the family ovens have been warming for more than 100 years. Sal Junior says it’s the top choice at Easter, but still very popular this time of year.
Also rich in ricotta, and very traditional at Christmas, is Sicilian cassata cake, which is soaked in rum, and at Fleetwood Pastry Shop, filled with homemade cannoli cream.
Domenick’s Nepperhan Italian Pastry Shop
1457 Nepperhan Ave
Neri’s Bakery Products, Inc.
31-37 Pearl St
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