Dessert, Italian Style

La Dolce Vita at sea-a recipe for dreamy sweets.

Life is sweet aboard a yacht. Sweeter still is plying said yacht upon the blue waters of the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas that caress Italy’s shores. But sweetest of all is to enjoy a great Italian dessert-along with the proper dessert wine-on one’s yacht while sailing the Mediterranean.

Italian desserts are unrepentantly rich, from the chocolate-coffee-and-custard mix of tiramisù to a lemony ricotta cheesecake. With a glass of prosecco or Asti spumante, they are completely satisfying while having the additional virtue of being far easier to make than most French desserts or even American apple pie. Here are some of the best that can be made on board with little effort, adapted from my Italian-American Cookbook, co-authored with my wife, Galina.

GRANITA AL CAFFÈ: A granita is a form of slightly slushy Italian ice and is made with various flavors. As tangy as lemon granita is, coffee-flavored granita is a refreshing pick-me-up with bittersweet qualities that make it a delightful alternative to a cup of espresso in summer or as a dessert after a rich meal.


2 to 3 Tbs. sugar 2 cups freshly brewed espresso Whipped cream

1. Dissolve the sugar into the espresso; let cool. 2. Pour the liquid into a flat pan and place in freezer. About every half hour, stir to break up the crystals of ice as they form. Allow to firm up slightly, but not as much as a sorbet. 3. Serve in individual dishes with whipped cream. Serves 4 to 6.

ZABAGLIONE: Zabaglione (“zah-bahl-YOH-neh) is the big show dish of Italian-American restaurants. The head waiter in a tuxedo comes to the table and with great flourish proceeds to whisk the ingredients together over a flame, then ceremoniously ladles it into dessert dishes, usually with the addition of fresh, cut-up fruit like strawberries or raspberries. Use a good quality sweet Marsala or your zabaglione will taste bitter and alcoholic.


5 large egg yolks 5 Tbs. sugar 5 Tbs. sweet Marsala 1/2 tsp. vanilla

1. In a double boiler, add the egg yolks, sugar, Marsala and vanilla. 2. Whisk or beat mixture with an electric beater until pale, fluffy and holds its shape, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

ZEPPOLE: Named “zeppelins because of their traditional fat, elongated shape, zeppoles are a ubiquitous street food, especially during Italian-American street fairs. This recipe makes a crispy, light zeppole, much like a popover.


1 cup water 5 Tbs. butter pinch of salt 2 Tbs. sugar 1 cup all-purpose flour 4 eggs vegetable oil for frying 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1. In a medium-size saucepan, combine the water, butter, salt and sugar; bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the flour; stir vigorously to blend well. The mixture will form a dough. Return to the burner over medium heat and stir for another minute. Remove from the heat. 2. Add the eggs, one at a time, into the flour mixture, beating well with a hand-held mixer until incorporated. 3. In a medium-size saucepan or a medium-size skillet, add about an inch of oil, and heat until temperature reaches 375 degrees. Dip two teaspoons into the hot oil to coat. With one spoon, scoop out a walnut-size piece of dough and carefully drop the dough into the hot oil, helping to scrape it off with the other spoon. Quickly repeat process several times, but do not crowd. Fry for about 6 minutes, until they have doubled in size, cracked a bit and are nicely browned. Drain on absorbent paper or paper towels. 4. Mix the confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon, place in a sifter and sift over the zeppole. Serve immediately (they cannot be made in advance). Makes about 18.

TIRAMISÙ: Since the 1980s, tiramisù (tee-rah-mee-SOO) has been a staple on Italian menus. The name, which means “pick me up, is perfect for a delectably creamy dessert that is even more appealing in the late afternoon with a cup of espresso than it is after a full meal.


1 (17.5 ounces) container mascarpone 2 Tbs. orange liqueur (Cointreau or Triple Sec) 1 Tbs. dark rum 3 Tbs. sugar 1 tsp. vanilla extract 1 cup heavy cream 24 ladyfingers (the Italian savoiardi are best) 11/2 cups brewed espresso 6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped finely

1. In a large bowl combine the mascarpone, orange liqueur and rum, then gradually blend in the sugar. 2. Add the vanilla extract to the heavy cream and whip in a chilled bowl until it forms soft peaks. Fold into the mascarpone mixture. 3. Place half the ladyfingers in a flat baking pan and pour half the espresso over them, turning often to moisten, for about 10 seconds. Carefully lift them out of the pan and place into a 12 x 6-inch baking pan in a single layer. 4. Spread half the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers and sprinkle with half the chopped chocolate. Repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients, creating two layers of ladyfingers. 5. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour. Serves 10.

Mamma Mariani’s Cheesecake: My mother was forever apologizing that whatever she made didn’t turn out the way she wanted or the way we might have remembered it, but to us, it always came out the same, which was pretty close to perfect. As Italian cheesecakes go, this is a superb example, even with the typically American addition of the Graham cracker crust. Feel free to add candied fruit to the cheese mixture.

1 3/4 cups Graham cracker crumbs 1/2 cup melted butter 1/4 cup sugar

Filling 2 lbs. whole-milk ricotta 6 eggs, separated 1 1/4 cups sugar pinch of salt 1 Tb. flour grated zest of 2 lemons 1 tsp. vanilla

1. In a medium-size bowl, combine the Graham cracker crumbs, butter and sugar and mix well. 2. In a 10 inch spring mold, add the Graham cracker mixture, and press down to make a 2 1/2 inch high edge and press the rest in the bottom of the pan. 3. In a food processor, add the ricotta and process for 30 sec. 4. Place the egg yolks in a bowl, beat and gradually beat in the sugar until light . Mix in the lemon zest and the vanilla. 5. In a mixing bowl, add the egg whites and lightly beat them until they barely hold their shape and until still very soft. 6. Add the ricotta and flour into the egg yolks and mix. Thoroughly fold in the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. 7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 8. Pour the filling into the spring mold and bake in the middle of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes or when the inserted tester comes out clean. If the cake browns quickly, loosely place a piece of aluminum foil over the top. Remove from the oven, let cool and refrigerate lightly. Do not serve ice cold. Serves 8

Torrone Semifreddo: A semifreddo (seh-mee-FREH-doh), sometimes referred to as a dolce al cucchiaio (a sweet to be eaten with a spoon), is a custard or chilled mousse. Torrone is a hazelnut nougat candy available at Italian markets.

2 large eggs 1/4 cup sugar 1 cup heavy cream 1 Tb. Triple sec 1 tsp. vanilla 4 oz. torrone, finely chopped, (Italian nougat candy) 2 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

1. In a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, line with plastic wrap, leaving a 3 inch overlap at the ends. 2. In a small bowl, beat the eggs until light and fluffy. Put the bowl into a saucepan of simmering water and continue to beat until the peaks begin to hold peaks. Remove from the hot water and place the bowl with the eggs into a bowl of ice water. Let cool, stirring often. 3. In another medium-size bowl, beat the heavy cream with the Triple sec and vanilla until they hold peaks. Gently fold the cooled beaten eggs into the whipped cream. Fold in the torrone and chocolate and transfer to the loaf pan. Even out the top, fold the plastic over the top and refrigerate for about 9 hours or overnight. 4. Unmold the semifreddo and slice as desired. Serves 8.

Panna Cotta: The name panna cotta (PAH-nah KOH-tah) means “cooked cream, and has a simple, pure flavor lending itself to fruit sauces.

1 package unflavored gelatin 2 cups cold milk 1 cup heavy cream 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract 5 Tbs. sugar

1. In a small saucepan, add 1/2 cup of the milk, sprinkle the gelatin over the milk and stir. Let the gelatin soften for about 7 minutes. 2. Place the saucepan with the gelatin over low heat and stir for 5 minutes. Add the remaining milk, cream and vanilla and heat, stirring frequently, until small bubbles appear around the edges. Remove from the heat, stir in the sugar until dissolved and let cool for 10 minutes. 3. Pour the panna cotta mixture into 6 ramekins. Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate until set. 4. To unmold: dip the ramekins into hot water for 20-30 seconds and invert onto a plate. Spoon some preserves or fruit puree around each unmolded panna cotta and serve. Serves 6.