I can’t lie to y’all. I try to be cool about it, but the truth is, I love Christmas. I don’t love the commercialized, hyper-capitalist aspects of it, but I do love the spirit of it all. I love how even the most self-involved people tend to be a little kinder around this time. I love the traditions — my family’s and other families’ and friends’ — that accompany celebrating the holiday. I love Christmas lights, and I love when people in the neighborhood go the extra mile with their outdoor Christmas displays. But if I’m being one hundred percent real with y’all (and I’m really trying to be), what I love most about Christmas is the TREATS.
Yes, the treats. Listen, I have a serious sweet tooth, ok? I don’t care if you think sweet tooths aren’t a thing. I’m telling you I have it. Of course, I enjoy plenty of savory, salty, umami foods, but if given the choice to eat dessert for almost every meal without any nutritional consequences occurring as a result, I’d make that choice in a heartbeat. And Christmas, well, Christmas is a seemingly infinite parade of the best treats in the world: decadent cakes with thick icing, cookies of all flavors and toppings, pies with all kinds of fillings, hot cocoa, Santa’s White Christmas ice cream, and so much more. You don’t have to make any excuses for eating them or buying them except for “It’s Christmastime,” and magically, they show up in the places where you often are: your workplace, your friends’ houses, and sometimes even on your doorstep. Sure, Christmas means different things to different people, but really, it gives us all the opportunity to share treats with the people we love for an entire month out of the year.
Both sides of my family are Italian-American, which means Christmas is a big holiday for everyone I’m related to. And during this time, there is absolutely no shortage of treats around. My family has many of their own that they make this time of year, but if you’re familiar with Italian and Italian-American Christmas traditions, you know the main treat category where we excel during this time of year is the Christmas cookie. Italians and Italian-Americans have dozens of different kinds of cookies that are generally available all year long, but for whatever reason, it seems like we consume the bulk of them during the holiday season, and it seems like everyone else does, too. In fact, the Italian Christmas cookie platter has become so ubiquitous in our culture that you don’t even have to go to the Italian market to get them anymore — you can just go to Publix or whatever your regional supermarket chain is where you live. I can’t guarantee they’ll taste as good as the ones you can get at the Italian market, but I’m just saying, they’re always around now.
Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on, though…not all Italian Christmas cookies are created equal. There are some definite superstars and some that are much less satisfying. I’ve created this guide for you so you know which ones are worth fighting your friends and family members for and which ones you should probably only eat after all the really good stuff is gone.
15. Italian Butter Cookies
Let me just be clear about something: I don’t hate or dislike any of the cookies on this list. They all have value, and they’re all worth eating. Some are just a little more boring than the rest, and that’s why butter cookies are at the bottom of this ranking. Weirdly, butter cookies aren’t even rooted in any actual Italian traditions, and yet, they’ve become so closely linked to the culture. Mostly, butter cookies are just a vehicle for a variety of toppings and fillings like dried fruit, chocolate ganache, sprinkles, and other kinds of frostings. That’s all fine and good, but we have better places to be.
14. Italian Bow Tie Cookies (Cenci)
Listen, I’m not kidding, this is just sweetened fried dough tied into a bow tie shape and then covered in confectioner’s sugar. And yes, fried dough is delicious, but I mean, come on, can we get a little more complexity here? Cenci cookies mostly seem like a reason to use up all the pastry you didn’t need for something else you’ve made.
One thing about Struffoli: The people who love it really love it. My maternal grandma really loves struffoli. And it’s mostly pretty cheap to make, so she doesn’t give a shit if anyone else eats them or not. Basically, struffoli are little balls of fried dough covered in a thick, sticky honey-orange sauce and then topped with some festive sprinkles. Somewhere down the line, I think my grandma forgot about the whole orange deal because I never taste it, but I wouldn’t dare ask her if it’s in there or not. I usually eat about five or six of these, max.
12. Italian Sprinkle/Wedding Cookies (Anisette Cookies)
These cookies come in two ways: with vanilla icing and sprinkles or covered in confectioner’s sugar. Usually, they’re flavored with almond extract, lemon extract, or anise extract (my preferred flavor) — or some combination of them. A lot of Italian cookies use these flavors, and that’s fine, but some are just better than others. Obviously, the ones with the sprinkles are a bigger hit during Christmas, and thankfully, tend to be on the anise side. These aren’t going to stop traffic or anything, but they’re easy to enjoy with a little espresso.
11. Italian Horn Cookies (Pizzicati)
It’s funny, when I was thinking of these rankings, I wasn’t sure what to do with the horns. I always end up eating a ton of these on Christmas Eve because of the sheer abundance of them at my maternal grandma’s house (she makes a lot) and because they’re easy to sneak from the kitchen while you’re waiting for dinner to finally be served. My family has only ever done the cinnamon and walnut version of these, but I’ve tried fruit ones, too. They’re good but mostly utilitarian — they’ll hold you over until you can get something better.
10. Rainbow Cookies (Tricolore)
I know that ranking these so low on the list is going to be controversial. But here’s the thing: I just don’t think they’re all that. They’re definitely pleasant to eat, but as far as the other almond paste-based cookies on this list are concerned, these simply do not beat them. In addition to that, I think — aside from the fried dough confections — it seems a little wrong to call these cookies. They’re tiny sponge cakes topped with chocolate. That’s not a cookie, that’s a petit four. (I’ll still throw back a couple of these bad boys, though, don’t worry.)
9. Italian Sesame Cookies (Reginelle)
All right, we’re starting to get into the really good shit here. Reginelles are a classic Sicilian cookie that are super simple but so delicious. The cookies themselves are usually flavored with vanilla and lemon zest, but the sesame seeds just give it some nuttiness and roastiness that really amps up the complexity of the flavor. I wish I was eating them right now.
This is where my inner Italian grandfather really comes out. Cuccidati are basically Italian Fig Newtons with the added deliciousness of dates and frosting. I don’t think I need to explain why these are good. If you don’t fuck with Fig Newtons, I feel like we can’t have a real conversation about this.
Sometimes, when one of my best friends and I want to emphasize how much we like something but can’t think of any other way to explain that, we say “It’s just good, folks!” in loud, exaggerated caricatures of our own voices. That’s how I feel thinking about biscotti right now. This shit is just good. You take a biscotti and dunk it into whatever coffee-based beverage you have going on? That’s a recipe for a great little morning moment right there. Biscotti is made, sold, and served all year long, but I’ve never been gifted more biscotti than at Christmas. The most popular flavors around this time are some of my personal favorites: cranberry and pistachio, chocolate hazelnut, and gingerbread. Seriously, they’re just good.
6. Sicilian Chocolate Spice Cookies (Tetù)
A true unsung hero of the Italian Christmas cookie world right here. I’m assuming these don’t get as much attention as they should because people are too distracted by butter cookies, but I actually don’t really know why we don’t talk about these more. Flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg along with cocoa powder and walnuts, these are an incredibly warm and inviting take on the traditional spice cookie that’s common during the holidays all over the world. You might be thinking, “Cinnamon and chocolate?” and I’m here to tell you that yes, it absolutely works.
5. Brutti ma Buoni
Can you believe that one of the most delicious cookies in the whole world has only five ingredients and one of those is a pinch of salt? These little miracles don’t even have flour in them. They are pure, crunchy-chewy, hazelnutty goodness. Brutti ma Buoni is like if an Italian person went to France or Switzerland and tried a meringue and then decided to recreate it using ingredients that were more commonly found in their local area. Honestly, even if they weren’t as good as they are, I think their name alone would get them a high spot on this list. It translates to “ugly but good.” I feel that.
4. Amaretti Cookies
Personally, I think it’s kind of fucked up how decadent amaretti cookies are. They’re soft, crispy, and chewy all at the same time. They have a buttery almond flavor that doesn’t overwhelm you. And they have even less ingredients than the Brutti. Like other cookies on this list, these are available all year long, but they really seem to be more abundant around this time of year. On top of that, they’re dairy and gluten free, so more people can love them. I hope you love them. (If you don’t, please don’t tell me. Being alive in the world right now is difficult enough.)
I don’t think any cookie in the world is as Christmas-y as a pizzelle. I mean, they’re supposed to resemble snowflakes for god’s sake. I’ll be straight up and say that I have very divisive opinions on pizzelles. My paternal grandma was a pizzelle making machine at Christmas time and pretty much only made them in two flavors because some members of my family (not naming any names, but it was mostly the men) don’t like star anise flavored treats. To me, a real pizzelle is either anise flavored or nutmeg flavored. They’re supposed to have a kind of sharp, memorable taste because the cookie itself melts away so quickly in your mouth when you bite into it. I’m sure you’re thinking, “But Stef, what if I don’t like those flavors?” Well, they’re available in vanilla, chocolate, and tons of other random flavors, so we don’t really need to argue about it. But I think it’s time to grow up a little.
2. Pignoli Cookies
Whoever the beautiful southern Italian genius was who looked at an amaretti cookie and said “Hey, you know what would make this ten times better? Roasted pine nuts” is probably in one of the highest seats in heaven or whatever is waiting for us on the other side right now. In fact, every time I eat a pignoli cookie, I hope that that beautiful genius is one of my ancestors because these pignoli cookies are so delicious, they feel otherworldly. Of course, they are probably the least affordable cookie on the list, but Christmas is the time to splurge anyway! So, really, we should just be eating at least one pignoli cookie everyday until Christmas Eve. Turn it into our own little Advent calendar.
1. Chocolate Lace Cookies (Florentines)
To me, chocolate lace cookies are the king of all cookies, so naturally, they’re also the king of the Italian Christmas cookies. I don’t often give northern Italy a lot of credit for stuff (don’t ask), but I have to say, they really did something with these. Chocolate lace cookies are thin and delicate but for some reason, they’re also snappy and chewy. Their incredibly delightful texture comes from the fact that their main ingredients are butter and sugar, not flour. You can imagine what that must taste like: rich and sweet without any of that pesky flour getting in the way of the decadence. Not to sound dramatic but there have been moments in my life where I didn’t think things would turn around for the better, and then I swung by the Italian market to pick up a couple of these and everything did. I’m not kidding.