The Complexities of Sugar in Italy


sugarOrdering coffee in Italy (un cafe’) means ordering an espresso and for most Italians definitely means adding sugar (zucchero), usually a lot of it, into the cup.  When sweetening your coffee in Italy, you may be confused by the labeling on your packet  of sugar and the selection and variety of sugar on the shelves at the Coop.

sugar caneWith your coffee you will see packets of zucchero di canna  a much darker sugar than the white (refined) or granulated sugar we typically use as an every-day table sugar here in the States. Zucchero di canna, literally translated as cane sugar, is made from the sugar cane rather than from the sugar beet.  It is partially refined and darker in color due to the presence of residual molasses.

In recipes for desserts and sweets Italians (as well as other EU countries) use a specific type of sugar called caster sugar. Caster or castor sugar is a white, granulated sugar with very fine crystals whose texture lends itself to baking because it dissolves well in cake batters, confections, meringue mixtures and such making them softer and lighter. Also called Baker’s sugar or Bartender’s sugar, it is favored by mixologists to make simple syrups used in cocktails and bar drinks.

Still life of various types of sugar in bowls

If the recipe calls for light brown sugar, the Italian substitution is demerara sugar, (zucchero grezzro di cana).  If the recipe calls for dark brown sugar that would be muscavado. Both are less refined so naturally have molasses in them. Zucchero al velo (a light ‘veil’ of sugar) is powdered sugar. In Italy it often is flavored and labeled vaniglato which means vanilla has been added to it.

There are also unrefined sugars, which in Italian are labeled as zuccheri integrali. The adjective integrale tends to be used  for everything that is not refined or processed, as in flours, bread, pasta, rice which in English would be called wholegrain or in this case wholecane.  This type of  sugar is made from the evaporation of sugar cane juice and the crystallization of this juice. Unlike regular brown sugar it is not refined, centrifuged or filtered. In Italy it can be found in artisan and specialty food shops and is called Panela.

A Romantic Remembrance of Italy

The terraces of Lake Como and Bellagio, the lagoons and calli of Venice, Juliet’s balcony and strolling along the Adige in Verona, castle turrets, beautiful and historic cities, romantic gardens, inspiring statutes and works of iconic art, breathtaking landscapes that can’t possibly be real. Italy is a country of allure and romance. Mysterious and adventurous; a country of special places where physical boundaries seems to meet the spiritual world. It is easy to develop a deep and often unexplainable emotional relationship with a country that promises so much. Travelers come to Italy with all sorts of expectations. The best leave with memories that last a lifetime and play over again to make you happy and smile and return for more.

I have many romantic remembrances of Italy like those described above but there is a scenic strand of coastline along the Brenta River that links Venice to Padua that I fantasize about with a longing.  It is known as the Brenta Riviera (Rivera del Brenta ).  Architects, such as Palladio, designed summer residences (villas) for wealthy Venetians who were looking for a diversion from the summer heat of Venice.  They would take “designer” barges known as a burchielli floating along the Brenta Canal (naviglio Brenta), stopping along the way to party. A floating version of a palazzo “schifanoia”  like the Renaissance palace in Ferrara built for the Este family for diversions (delizie), a sort of banqueting house whose only purpose was for fun and recreation.  The name “schifanoia” is thought to originate from “schivar la noia” meaning literally to “escape from boredom” and avoid the tedium of city life.


The barges were able to navigate through the shallow river and were pushed by oars from St. Mark’s in Venice (Piazza San Marco) through the Venetian lagoon to Fusina then pulled by horses along the Brenta. It is possible to follow the historical route of the 18th century Venetian in historical replicas of burchielli and motor barges navigating the Brenta from Padua to Venice viewing the villas along the way including Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta) Villa Widmann in Mira and Villa Pisani in Stra. I have driven S11 that runs along most of the canal’s length. We did this with our Italian cousins and stopped at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) and other assorted seafood with prosecco.  My drive and sightseeing along the canal was the beginning of an evocative romance with the Brenta.

burchiello Stra-Villa-Pisani

One can only imagine a trip along the Brenta in the burchielli of the noble Venetians,  entertaining their guests with comedians and musicians, slowly floating down the river in colorful, elegant barges decorated with mirrors and carvings traveling to their country villas as the life of the canal revealed itself with craftsmen’s workshops and fisherman along the banks.  The 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni describing the anticipation of the villa season wrote Tis time to set out for the villa. O’ longed for moment come at last. What anguish we’ve endured fearing we should never go”.     A romantic notion of Italy.