Lost Foods of New York City: Biscuit Tortoni
Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.
Back in the 1990s tiramisù, the creamy jumble of ladyfingers, mascarpone, espresso, and booze, became one of the most recognizable Italian desserts in America.
Meanwhile, confections like Italian ice and cream-filled cannoli maintain respectable positions in the Italian sweets cannon. But mention biscuit tortoni to someone under the age of 45, and you’re unlikely to elicit a single drool of recognition.
And that’s a shame. Because in its heyday in New York City (and beyond), biscuit tortoni was as droolworthy as desserts come—a creamy custard flavored with crushed amaretti cookies (hence “biscuit”) or almond extract, frozen to the consistency of ice cream, and dusted with finely chopped almonds. Until the mid-twentieth century, biscuit tortoni was a staple at family-style Italian restaurants, where it was typically served in a minimalist paper soufflé cup. There, it was at home on the dessert menu amongst dishes of spumoni, lemon ices, and other snowy descendants of ice cream-obsessed Italian cuisine.
But curiously, biscuit tortoni led a double life. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was primarily served in upscale restaurants, and spooned by members of New York City’s elite class.
“Biscuit tortoni started out in posh restaurants, then eventually migrated down to the red-checked tablecloth places,” explained Jeri Quinzio, author of Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making (University of California Press, 2009). A search through the New York Public Library’s menu archives confirms that biscuit tortoni appeared on menus at numerous ritzy dining establishments, including the restaurants in the Waldorf Astoria in 1900, the Park Avenue Hotel in 1901, and The Hotel Knickerbocker in 1907 (In each case, the treat set diners back 30 cents.)
So how did a humble Italian dessert end up being served by white-gloved waiters alongside continental fare like filet mignon and snails bourguignonne? The answer lies in the dish’s likely inspiration—a nineteenth-century Neapolitan emigrant to France, Signore (or rather Monsieur) Tortoni owned one of the first glaciers (ice cream cafés) in Paris. For nearly one hundred years until it closed in 1893, Café Tortoni was the toast of Parisian high society. As Quinzio writes, “In the morning, stockbrokers breakfasted there; late in the afternoon, artists sipped absinthe and showed off their latest works there; and at night tout le monde went to Tortoni’s for ices.”
It’s unclear whether Café Tortoni actually offered the frothy, almond-flavored dessert that would come to bare it’s owner’s name—though it certainly may have. But it is easy to envision how a restaurateur in late nineteenth century New York might create a dessert that evoked the café’s world-famous charm and mystique. And considering Café Tortoni’s high Parisian profile, it’s easier yet to imagine how an eponymous dessert would end up the delight of both the Francophile upper class (at times the dish’s name was “Frenchified” as bisque tortoni) and middle-class Italian communities alike. The specific details of biscuit tortoni’s birth are lost to history. But like all great New York food, at its heart the dish is all about fusion.
Admittedly, biscuit tortoni is not as “lost” as many of the foods that have been featured in this column. It can still be found at a handful of restaurants and shops in Italian or formerly Italian neighborhoods across New York—among them Bleecker Pastry Tartufo in Long Island City, Queens (formerly on Bleecker Street in Manhattan), which crowns their tortoni with a maraschino cherry. I recently ended my meal with the tortoni at Villa Mosconi in Greenwich Village, an old-school Italian joint that never stopped serving fresh homemade pasta, and where “That’s Amore” wafts over the din of conversation and clinking wine glasses without a hint of irony.
But as my waiter at Villa Mosconi told me, unprompted, after I placed my tortoni order, “It’s a shame—we’re one of the last places you can find it.” Meanwhile, those who follow the food forums on Chowhound know that if a food ever gets mentioned in a post that begins “Whatever happened to…?” followed by a thread of people reminiscing about where they used to eat them, it’s most likely a goner. In that case, Tortoni's official time of Chowhound death was December 11, 2004—crowded off of many of the city's Italian dessert menus by gelato and the ubiquitous tiramisù.
Luckily, biscuit tortoni is simple to make at home, and unlike other frozen treats, does not require a counter-cluttering ice cream maker. Plus, thanks to the bits of amaretti cookie threaded through the frozen custard, biscuit tortoni’s texture is more rustic, and more interesting, than regular ice cream. With three months of summer stretching hazily ahead, there couldn’t be a better time to put some Sinatra on the stereo, a bottle of Chablis in the fridge, and a tray of biscuit tortoni in the freezer.
Makes 12 desserts
I adapated this recipe from Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, by Jeri Quinzio
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup finely crushed amaretti cookies
2 egg whites
pinch of salt
finely chopped almonds for garnish
1. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, whip the cream and sugar together until it forms soft peaks. Carefully fold in the vanilla and almond extracts and cookie crumbs, set aside.
3. In a separate bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites and salt until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold into the cream mixture.
4. Spoon mixture into the prepared cupcake tin and gently smooth the tops. Sprinkle each tortoni with chopped almonds. Cover cupcake pan with plastic wrap and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods: New York City at LeahLostFoods@gmail.com