Polenta E Osei, The Unique Italian Dessert That's Adorned With Chocolate Birds

Sometimes a savory dish is so iconic that it becomes incorporated into a sweet commemoration; just think of pizza and burger-shaped cakes you've seen on cooking shows or foodie reels, prepared with an uncanny attention to detail to honor their beloved savory counterpart. In Italy, bakery owners started a similar tradition nearly a century before cooking shows came into existence. Polenta e osei is a unique Northern Italian dessert named and fashioned after its namesake, a savory main course.

Meaning polenta and birds, polenta e osei refers first and foremost to the centuries-old main course enjoyed in the Lombardy region. However, in the city of Bergamo, polenta e osei takes on a second meaning often distinguished by the word dolce, meaning sweet. Polenta e osei dolce bears a visual resemblance to the savory main dish it honors. These individual cakes are made of rum-spiked sponge cake, sometimes incorporating sweetened polenta, with layers of chocolate and hazelnut cream, and are covered in marzipan and yellow castor sugar to mimic cheesy polenta molds. Then, chocolate-flavored marzipan (usually using cocoa) is molded into the "osei" or birds, which are placed on top of the sponge cake, using a dab of apricot jam to anchor them in place.

These charming and delicious desserts are mainstays in most bakeries and pastry shops around Bergamo. While their looks can be deceivingly savory, the super sweet surprise that awaits you is a deception you'll most certainly welcome.

History and cultural significance

Along with osso buco and stracciatella gelato, Bergamo is also the birthplace of polenta, a savory cornmeal often elaborated with cheese and butter. While the wider Lombardy region has spawned many delicious polenta-based dishes, the savory version of polenta e osei is the city of Bergamo's signature dish. It consists of a dome of cheesy polenta served with roasted quail, finches, or thrushes, and seasoned with sage.

In 1910, Bergamo citizens Amadeo and Giuseppina Alessio created and served the first polenta e osei dolce at their bakery, Pasticceria Milanese. Their indulgent attempt to honor the local gastronomy was so successful that it became its own gastronomical icon. Over a century later, polenta e osei dolce has garnered popularity locally and nationally. It's offered in various sizes in bake shops around Bergamo as an ode to the local and regional culinary heritage. The most typical small, individually-sized pastries are the perfect mid-afternoon snack to enjoy with a shot of espresso or as the ideal ending to a multi-course meal, particularly when paired with a sweet Italian dessert wine like Moscato.