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Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?

If you think Italy's two most famous Christmas cakes are fairly similar, think again. What's the difference? Why are people in Italy so divided in the great cake debate? And which one, really, is the best?

Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?
Pandoro and panettone are both classic Italian Christmas desserts, but which do you prefer? File photo: AFP

Both panettone and pandoro are well-known Italian Christmas cakes – though they’re not just eaten on the day itself, but enjoyed throughout December and into January.

With their cute packaging, plus luxury or miniature versions available from many bakeries, they make a perfect gift for friends and family.

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

But you may want to check first whether the person you’re giving the cake to is on team pandoro or team panettone, as many people in Italy have developed a strong preference for one or the other.

This can become a serious dilemma in many Italian families, and the only acceptable solution, of course, is to buy one of each.

The two cakes can look pretty similar to the uninitiated – so what are the differences?

Panettone, originally made in Milan, has a distinctive dome-shaped top and traditionally contains citrus peel and raisins or candied fruit – though all kinds of variations are available, from chocolate to limoncello and cream. The dough contains yeast and is cured in a similar way to sourdough – it needs to be left rise three times before being baked. 

Pandoro, which originated in Verona, is taller and star-shaped. Pan d’oro means ‘golden bread’, and the vanilla-scented cake gets its yellow colour from the eggs in the batter. It’s light, airy, and plain, and is usually dusted liberally with icing sugar before serving.

Panettone (top right) in an Italian bakery. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
When The Local asked readers on Twitter which they preferred, there were some very strong opinions from both sides voiced by Italians and non-Italians alike.
“Pandoro is just too bland for my tastes, maybe I’ve never found the right one. However, I’m curious why they are such an inconvenient shape – too tall for cake boxes & kitchen cupboards!” wrote George Young.
“Pandoro all the way!” said Sarah. “So light and fluffy. Panettone is just another stodgy fruitcake, every country has those and doesn’t really eat them anymore.”
People often ask which cake is really best and, while everyone would answer that question differently, we did conduct an unscientific Twitter poll to find out which is most popular.

Panettone came out the clear winner with 61.5 percent of the vote, while pandoro got 33.5 percent.

Five percent said they’d have something else, while several laid-back respondents commented that they’d happily eat either or both.

While you might expect the Milanese to be the biggest panettone fans, some (quietly) admitted that they actually prefer pandoro.

And residents of Verona reminded us not to forget about the nadalin, pandoro’s “humble ancestor”.

“The name means “little Christmas” in Veronese dialect. According to tradition, it was created in the 13th century to honour the Scaligeri, lords of Verona,” tweeted the language teachers at My Italian Circle.
The way you serve your chosen cake might make all the difference, however.

While some dessert lovers admitted to giving up on cutting slices out of their cakes and simply tearing off chunks with their hands, others described a more sophisticated approach.

Angelo Boccato recommended pandoro with the addition of Chantilly cream, while describing panettone as “significantly overrated”.

Alice Mulhearn Williams said: “Pandoro is great with lemony mascarpone for dessert, but it doesn’t have the versatility of panettone when it comes to leftovers…trifle, bread & butter pud, french toast, fried in butter and served with baked apples.” 

However, think carefully before serving creative Christmas desserts to Italian guests. One Italian in London recalled numerous “artery-clogging pandoro tiramisu abominations” brought to New Years’ Eve parties, which they described as “traumatic”.

Though panettone and pandoro are by far the most famous, they’re far from the only Christmas cakes you’ll find in Italy.

If you’d like to try even more Italian desserts over the holidays, here’s more on the most delicious Christmas cakes from around the country.

Member comments

  1. In my family, panettone was breakfast food. We would gild the lily with butter, and have it with coffee. I can’t imagine doing that with pandoro, which just seems weird to me. But the true Christmas dessert is strufoli. Did you only talk to people from the north? Strufoli is as good as it gets at Christmas.

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Five Italian New Year traditions to bring luck for 2024

Celebrating San Silvestro in Italy? There are a few customs to follow to make sure you start 2024 with as much good fortune as possible.

Five Italian New Year traditions to bring luck for 2024

Eating lentils

At many an Italian New Years Eve party, small dishes of lentils are handed out to guests just before the countdown.

Lentils, or lenticchie, are believed to bring good luck, as they’re said to represent small coins and therefore bring wealth and prosperity in the year ahead.

The tradition of eating them at New Year – shortly after midnight – is said to date back to Ancient Rome. The more you eat, the luckier you’ll be in the coming year.

Wearing red underwear

If you’re hoping for an Italian romance, the only way to make sure Cupid shoots an arrow in your direction during 2024 is to deck yourself out in red underwear on New Year’s Eve. 

Some say that the charm only works if the undies are a gift, while others firmly believe you have to give them away before daybreak.

Either way, the majority of Italians firmly believe that the custom is linked to fertility or good luck in your sexual endeavours (60 percent agree with this statement, at least according to a survey carried out by drinks company San Pellegrino).

More generally, red underwear will apparently help to fend off evil spirits and negativity, bringing you happiness in the coming year: the colour red has been used for centuries by superstitious Italians to ward off disaster.

Throwing things out of the window

Watch out for falling objects – in some southern parts of the country, it’s traditional to throw possessions, particularly crockery, out of your window to show that you are ready for a new start in the new year.

As national treasure Totò says in New Year’s Eve comedy The Passionate Thief:

– San Silvestro, roba vecchia, defenestro!
– On New Year’s Eve, out of the window old stuff must leave!

If you’d rather that new start didn’t involve arguments with the neighbours about why you threw a plate at their head in the middle of the night, an alternative tradition is crashing pots and pans together at your front door, to frighten away evil spirits (see below).

People set off firecrackers by the Colosseum. (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Making noise

One thing we can guarantee is that, unless you’re in the middle of the deepest Italian countryside, New Year’s Eve is going to be a noisy affair. And the further south you get, the more incredible the noise levels.

Fireworks, music, the beeping of horns, and perhaps a few smashing plates all add to the cacophony in the streets of towns and cities as the clock strikes midnight. Fireworks in particular are likely to be going off all evening ahead of the start of the new year, and even during the day.

Few people are likely to be thinking about the festivities in these terms nowadays, but if you ask an older Italian you might be told that, according to superstition, demons and evil spirits don’t like loud noises, so all this ensures they’ve been well and truly scared off before the new year begins. 

Making a racket at your front door in particular is to be encouraged, as this deters evil spirits from entering the house along with the new year.

A swim in the sea (or the River Tiber)

If you still have any energy left the next morning, one surefire way to zap your Prosecco hangover is with a freezing-cold dip in the sea.

Along Italy’s warmer southern coasts, and occasionally further north, you’ll see groups of hardy swimmers braving the water early on the morning of January 1st in a longstanding tradition that’s said to bring health and prosperity in the new year (or at least a clear head on the first day of it).

If you’re in Rome, you could instead join in with the more questionable tradition of jumping into the River Tiber on New Year’s Day, which has been increasingly popular since it began in 1946.