I first encountered Tortoni as a young boy, dining with my parents and their in town friends at a local Italian restaurant and watering hole called The Rose Bowl. It attracted a coterie of decidedly colorful locals and a regular horsey click that, to me, all seemed pretty “swanky and continental” for our otherwise staid colonial town in southeastern Pennsylvania. The place was mid-century modern before mid-century had a label. The lounge was decked out with Eames chairs, an open pizza station facing the entrance, a lively lounge to the left, and a dining area to right replete with amorphous banquets set under murals of Italian landscapes and Venetian canals. The original place was trending ever so briefly before it went through several ill conceived design updates and eventually sadly slipped into oblivion. But, never forgotten, it was one of those early encounters that indelibly shaped my ideas about food, art, design, and wanderings to far off ports unknown.
Tortoni’s popularity faded along with the mid-century, but for a few holdouts in New York’s Italian neighbourhoods. But its glory began long before in Paris at Giuseppe Tortoni’s Cafe de Paris at 22 Boulevard de Italians which opened 1798.
Giuseppe Tortoni’s cafe and glacier became wildly fashionable, attracting artists, writers, diplomats, and cafe society alike, including Edouard Manet (see here), Honore de Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, and even America’s Thomas Jefferson who took Giuseppe’s recipe back home to Monticello to serve his Parisian discovery up for his duly impressed dinner guests. Tortoni caught on in America and continued to be served in the fanciest hotels and restaurants until the mid 60’s, then suddenly fell out o fashion with the arrival of the more decadent tiramisu and Italian gelatos.
Of course I knew nothing about tortoni’s notoriety as a boy, but tortoni, to me, was an exotic taste of of far off Italy; the almonds, spirits, and pistachios mirrored in the landscape murals over the banquettes at the Rose Bowl lingered. I was smitten!
My dear friend Marilyn kindly emailed me about her fond reminiscences of Tortoni from her early childhood in New York.
My absolute favorite memory was back in elementary school birthdays in the 50s with classes that included both Jewish and Italian kids.
The Italian parents always sent a big, flat cardboard box filled with tortoni – one for each of the students. The tortoni came frozen in short, white, folded cups – similar to the cups we used to get when we bought Italian ices – accompanied by little wooden spoons wrapped in paper. And they always had crumbled almond cookies on top and a bit of maraschino cherry in the center. To me, those creamy, frozen tortoni represented something so foreign and so exotic. It was like another world – the nectar of the gods. I’ve always wondered how something so delicious could have disappeared from Italian menus – especially in Brooklyn, NY. But I guess great desserts were replaced by craft beer. Even Viniero’s (on 1st Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan) – where one could still get the creamiest Italian chocolate ices – closed last year.
The recipe that follows is drawn from my own recollections of that first encounter with Tortoni. A frozen fluffy creamy Italian delight set in a pristine white pleated cup topped with crumbled crunchy almonds and pistachios and a bright red cherry in the center.
Tortoni makes 12
Needed: 12 paper muffin cups and 1 muffin tray
- 3/4 cup blanched sliced almonds, lightly toasted
- ¼ cup water
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 3 egg whites, chilled
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoon dark rum
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 12 small maraschino cherries (or 6 large, halved), or candied cherries
Place the muffin tray in the freezer while you prepare the tortoni.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C
Toast the almonds in a baking tray for 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and transfer the almonds to another tray to cool. Reserve 48 perfect almond slices to use for adding to the top of the tortoni. Blitz the remaining almonds and ¼ teaspoon almond extract into a fine meal, but with some texture, and set aside to use later.
Place the sugar and water in a small stainless saucepan and bring to a boil without stirring. Using a candy thermometer continue boiling the mixture until it reaches 242F/116C. Remove from the flame promptly and set aside.
Add the chilled egg whites to an electric mixer bowl and add the cream of tartar. Beat until the whites form soft peaks and then begin adding the hot sugar syrup to the egg whites, while still beating, in a slow steady stream until the whites form stiff peaks, about 3 or 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Whip the cream in an electric mixer bowl, adding the confectioner’s sugar and the remaining ¼ teaspoon almond extract and vanilla once the cream begins to thicken. Then add the rum and continue to whip just until the whipped cream forms soft peaks. Do not over whip the cream so that it folds into the egg white mixture evenly without clumping.
Remove the bowl of whipped cream from the mixer and fold the chilled egg white mixture into the whipped cream by hand until completely incorporated. Fold in ½ cup of the blitzed toasted almonds evenly.
Place the bowl in the freezer and chill for 30 minutes. Remove the bowl from the freezer and whip the contents. Return the bowl to the freezer for another 30 minutes. Again remove the bowl from the freezer and begin to whip the contents while adding the whole milk. continue to whip until incorporated. Return to the freezer for another 30 to 40 minutes until firm.
Remove the muffin tray from the freezer and fill tray with paper muffin cups. Then remove the bowl or tortoni from the freezer and whip briefly. Spoon the tortoni mixture into the paper cups compressing the mixture to fill the paper cup evenly. Transfer to the freezer, uncovered, while you make the almond pistachio crumb topping.
For the almond pistachio crumb topping:
- 1/2 cup shelled blitzed roasted pistachios
- 1/4 cup blitzed toasted almonds
- 7 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 drops almond extract
- 1 ½ teaspoons water
Place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix together, using the back of the spoon to crush the ingredients together into a slightly moist sticky crumb.
Remove the tortoni from the refrigerator and top each cup with the pistachio almond crumb. Be a little generous here as the crunch of the crumb brings the tortoni to life. Arrange 4 toasted almond slices on each tortoni and place a cherry in the center of each.
Return to the freezer, uncovered, until the tortoni is set and then cover with cling film and freeze for at least 6 hours before serving.
Once set the tortoni can be transferred to a covered container for long term storage in the freezer.