A missing painting, an elegant Parisian cafe, and a simple frozen dessert. What they all have in common is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft 25 years ago.
Chez Tortoni is the name of one of the 13 works stolen from the museum. A small oil painting by Edouard Manet, it shows a well-dressed man sitting at a cafe table with a drink in front of him. He’s writing on a piece of paper, but staring at the viewer, like someone looking into a camera.
When Manet painted it, in the late 19th century, he knew the name Tortoni, the most fashionable cafe in the world, would be understood well beyond Paris. Writers like Honore de Balzac, Edgar Allan Poe, and Guy de Maupassant immortalized the place in novels. Located on the chic Boulevard des Italiens, Cafe Tortoni dazzled Parisians until the wee hours for nearly the entire 19th century. Mornings found stockbrokers drinking coffee at the cafe, afternoons artists sipped absinthe and showed off their latest works, nights Parisians went to Tortoni for ices and ice creams. Paris boulevards were jammed with carriages heading for the cafe before and after the opera and theater. M. Jules Janin, author of the 1843 book “The American in Paris,” wrote that people were so eager to get to Tortoni that they left the theater “before the last stab.”
Cafe owner M. Tortoni was a Neapolitan who started as a waiter. He took over the place and renamed it in 1803 or 1804. Details, including his actual first name, are sketchy. But he soon made the cafe a raging success. Tortoni became the place to see and be seen, to eat and drink, but most of all, to enjoy exceptional ices and ice creams. Other ice cream makers sought out Tortoni secrets, like Robert Gunter, son of the owner of Gunter’s Tea Shop in London, known for its ice cream, who went to Tortoni to brush up on his skills.
One of the most famous ice creams was a glace plombiere. A bit like frozen pudding, it was a rich almond-flavored ice cream with mix-ins of candied fruits steeped in kirsch. In a Balzac novel, he describes a dinner at which a Tortoni plombiere was served. When the 1839 book was later published in English as “A Harlot High and Low,” plombiere was translated as “sundae.” There were no sundaes at the time (Americans invented them some 50 years later).
Cafe Tortoni shut its doors in 1893. The fashionable set became infatuated with the new Parisian English-style tea shops and with brasseries that served beer in casual surroundings. But the Tortoni name was used for a simple frozen dessert called biscuit Tortoni (although no one has been able to prove that it was served at the famed cafe).
More a frozen mousse than a traditional ice cream, biscuit Tortoni is typically made with whipped cream and crushed amaretti cookies; in Britain, a biscuit is a cookie, and ice creams with crushed cookies of any kind were called biscuit cream ice, biscuit glace, or biscuit ice cream.
By the turn of the 20th century, biscuit Tortoni had become an elite dessert featured on fine restaurant, hotel, steamship, and yacht club menus. It was made at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and at the esteemed Delmonico’s, eventually landing at Italian-American red-checked tablecloth restaurants.
Every cookbook author from Fannie Farmer to Julia Child has a recipe for this lush and deceptively light dessert. The icy treat lives on.
Jeri Quinzio can be reached at email@example.com.