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The Real Story of Neapolitan Ice Cream

09 June 2023
by Giadzy
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Does Neapolitan Ice Cream Really Come From Naples?

Ah, Neapolitan ice cream. The frozen blocks of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream have offered the perfect compromise for bickering families and indecisive shoppers alike for decades. Can’t decide on one flavor? Take three! Whether you were the type to singlemindedly scoop out your favorite and leave the rest of the carton for someone else to finish or one who delighted in a dish of meticulously multicolored scoops, childhood memories of this classic confection run deep. But how did this American supermarket staple come by its Italian name? Was it really invented in Naples? The answer, it turns out, is complicated.

Frozen treats go back centuries and can be found all over the world, from Ancient Rome to China, India, and the Middle East. But the first modern recipe for what we would recognize as sorbet and ice cream was recorded by a chef named Antonio Latini in Naples in the late 17th century, who wrote that “here in Naples, it seems everyone is born with the instinctive gift of making sorbetti.” That frosty talent was in large part thanks to scientific advances happening here at the time, which allowed people to keep foods frozen throughout the year, even in the sweltering summer. Street vendors, shop owners, and private chefs for the elite all specialized in creating innovative fruit-flavored ices, creamy gelati, and other frozen treats—and as they traveled, they brought their delicious skills with them.

In the 19th century, waves of immigrants from Naples and the south of Italy arrived in the U.S. At the same time that they were introducing pizza to the country, Neapolitan vendors also introduced the idea of selling ice cream as a portable treat to be enjoyed any time of day. Soon, any type of ice cream was referred to in the English-speaking press as “Neapolitan-style.”

Spumoni Ice Cream Cake

So why is the name today reserved for this very specific three-flavor combination? In addition to that Italian immigration, the 19th century saw a great fad for layered foods, from jellies to cakes to, yes, ice creams. Recipes dating from the 1880s into the 1940s called for between three and five flavors of ice cream—popular choices were lemon, vanilla, coffee, almond, and chocolate—to be molded together in a square form, then sliced to show off the colorful pattern. Some would even include an icy fruit sorbet layer for contrast. A popular variation in Naples around this time incorporated bits of candied fruit and nuts into layers of a lighter whipped cream base and called it spumoni, for the foam-like texture. In the U.S., Neapolitan vendors popularized a simple layered ice cream based on the colors of the Italian flag (the same inspiration for the pizza Margherita, invented around this time in 1889) starring pistachio, vanilla, and cherry.  Over time, other vendors simplified the formula even more, replacing the green pistachio with ever-popular chocolate and the red cherry with easier-to-source strawberries.

How this turn-of-the-century fad became a supermarket staple that persists nearly 150 years later is harder to trace, but no doubt its longevity is largely thanks to that flavor evolution and the enduring popularity of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. (A 2023 survey of U.S. adults’ favorite ice cream flavors ranked vanilla and chocolate at #1 and #2, respectively, with strawberry coming in at #4.) Now, the next time you reach for that tricolored brick in the ice cream aisle, you’ll know that it really is a piece of the culinary legacy of Naples!

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