What Is Spumoni, And Is It The Same As Gelato?

Gelato may be the most world-famous frozen dessert from Italy, but not all ice cream-like Italian treats fall into the category of gelato. Take spumoni, a vibrant dessert that might remind you of tricolored Neapolitan ice cream. Spumoni is neither a variation of Neapolitan ice cream, nor is it just another flavor of gelato. It's a unique dish that uses base of gelato, but with other ingredients mixed in and a very specific assembly process that sets it apart.

Spumoni gets its name from the Italian word "spuma," which means foam. Befitting of its moniker, spumoni is made by whisking whipped cream into three different flavors of gelato until the rich mixture froths up and turns into a light and airy cloud. The classic flavors are  pistachio, cherry, and either chocolate or vanilla. The latter is used to imitate the colors of the red, white, and green Italian flag.

Once the gelato base is nice and fluffy, chunky mix-ins such as candied fruit, amaretto cookies, nuts, and chocolate pieces are folded in. The three gelatos are layered in a mold and frozen, after which the spumoni is sliced into rectangular slabs (unlike regular gelato, which is scooped). The dessert is served by the slice, perhaps drizzled with chocolate sauce and more whipped cream on top. While spumoni might be unheard of to some of us, it has a long history with an interesting connection to the aforementioned Neapolitan ice cream.

Spumoni is Neapolitan ice cream's ancestor

Spumoni can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century. The concept of layering foods for visual effect was all the rage in Italy at the time, and it didn't take long for the trend to spill over into frozen treats. Chefs began layering as many as five ice creams — in flavors like almond, coffee, and lemon — into molds to form wonderful patterns. In Naples, whipped cream was added to the gelato, mix-ins were sprinkled in, and the dessert took the form of spumoni.

Alternative theories claim that there were precursors of spumoni that could be classified as a semifreddo — a category of solid ice-cream like confections that are molded and sliced, rather than frozen into solid blocks and scooped. Instead of using gelato, these versions of spumoni were made by folding whipped cream into a foamy mixture of egg yolks and sugar syrup.

What we know is that in these same two centuries, the U.S. saw an influx of Italian immigrants, particularly from Naples. They brought beloved dishes with them, such as Margherita pizza and spumoni, and the dessert evolved to accommodate the change of scenery. Whipped cream and mix-ins were taken out, and spumoni was simplified into a more modest dessert made of plain cherry, pistachio, and vanilla ice creams. Eventually, the cherry and pistachio were replaced with easy-to-find, more popular alternatives: strawberry and chocolate. Thus, we have modern "Neapolitan" ice cream.

How to make spumoni at home

There are many complicated dishes that aren't worth making at home, but spumoni isn't one of them. While some simple recipes use a frozen custard that doesn't require an ice cream machine, you can create an even easier version by using store-bought gelatos instead. And we do recommend seeking out gelato — it's different from regular old ice cream.

Start by softening your pints of gelato by leaving them at room temperature until malleable, then load them with your preferred mix-ins. Roasted and chopped pistachios can go into the pistachio gelato, pieces of maraschino cherries can go into the cherry one, and you could add chocolate chips to your vanilla or chocolate layer. Don't be afraid to experiment with even more additions, and if you can't find cherry gelato, buy an extra pint of vanilla and mix it with cherry juice.

Since spumoni has evolved over the years, you should also feel free to play with gelato flavors. Try zesty sorbets, like raspberry, lemon, and lime, for a fruity twist. Or use the Neapolitan trio of flavors, plus mix-ins like cookies and brownies, for a more kid-friendly take. You could even add a layer of crushed amaretti cookies to the bottom of your spumoni mold to give it a tart-like shell, or cover the entire dessert in whipped cream. Once loaded into a loaf pan and given a few hours in the freezer, your beautiful spumoni will be ready to slice and serve!