Tortoni is a frozen Italian dessert, created by Italians — or more precisely, Neapolitans — in Paris.
It is flavoured and sweetened whipped cream, garnished with something almond flavoured such as chopped almonds, chopped maraschino cherries or crumbled amaretti cookies.
The cream can be flavoured with rum or sherry, or a liqueur such as Amaretto. You freeze it until firm, then remove it from the freezer about 15 minutes before serving to allow it to soften a bit.
Large ones are moulded in springform pans, and served in slices.
When made in small cups, is called “biscuit tortoni.” Biscuit Tortoni are served right in their cups. Italians often serve it in paper muffin cups.
Some variations use ice cream instead of whipped cream, and sadly, some modern versions have become little more than ice cream with bland frozen fruit in them.
Tortoni’s was a café in Paris at 22, Boulevard des Italiens, at the corner of rue Taitbout. It was opened in 1798 by a man named Velloni from Naples.
It seems to have run into financial difficulties in its first year or early on. He was bought out by a man who worked for him, Giuseppe Tortoni, born circa 1775. Giuseppe had arrived in Paris in 1798 at the age of 23. He said he brought with him “an ancient and ailing mother, an ugly and bothersome wife, three ill-mannered children and a sway-backed horse, the only member of my family who has any sympathies for my ambitions.” He also brought to Paris with him 200 livres in cash.
He renamed Velloni’s shop after himself, Tortoni’s, probably quite early on. On 20th February 1798, Thomas Jefferson arrived at Mount Vernon, along with several other people, to celebrate George Washington’s 66th birthday. While they all brought gifts of food, Jefferson brought as well an ice cream dessert recipe he had obtained on a recent trip to Paris from Giuseppe Tortoni. In writing about the party later to a friend, Jefferson noted that Washington “had heard about the little Italian ice cream maker who was the rage of Paris and was delighted to receive the recipe … and arranged to have the dessert prepared for our pleasure.”
Tortoni lived to at least 1864, when he was 89, because he wrote “my children, although now adults, remain ill-mannered and I fear for the fate of my little establishment once I am gone and it falls into their hands.”
His cafe was famous for its buffet table, and its cold Italian desserts. It finally closed in 1893. The International Herald Tribued noted on 30 June of that year: “Tortoni disappears from Paris to-day [June 30]. The café at the corner of the boulevard des Italiens and the rue Taitbout, which for a century has been known as one of the favorite resorts of men renowned in literature, the arts and the aristocracy, to-day follows the Restaurant Brébant, and goes the way of all the earth. On Saturday the work of demolition will begin, and another feature of old Paris will have passed away.”
Literature & Lore
“You regret France?”
“I regret Paris.”
“Why do you not go back?”
“Oh, I will return there.”
And gradually we began to talk of French society, of the boulevards, and things Parisian. He asked me questions that showed he knew all about these things, mentioned names, all the familiar names in vaudeville known on the sidewalks.
“Whom does one see at Tortoni’s now?”
“Always the same crowd, except those who died.”
— from “Fascination” by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)
On 18 March 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed of 13 works of art by two men posing as policemen. One of the painting was “Chez Tortoni”, painted sometime between 1878 and 1880 by Edouard Manet (23 January 1832 to 30 April 1883.) The painting depicts a formally-dressed man sitting at a small table outside Tortoni’s, on their famed sidewalk terrace, enjoying a glass of something while sketching. As of 2006, the 1990 robbery remains unsolved.
Fannie Farmer gave a recipe for Tortoni; hers was based on sugar, sherry and macaroons that had been soaked in cream. The mixture was mushed up, then frozen a bit, then folded into whipped cream, then put in a mould, and packed in salt and ice and let freeze. The recipe, called “Biscuit Tortoni in Boxes”, called for slices of it to be served in boxes made from lady fingers tied together with ribbon.
Rogov, Daniel. “Ice cream even the king can’t afford.” Jerusalem Post. 30 May 1997.