The term Neapolitan ice cream typically refers to a layered frozen dessert made up of three flavors: chocolate ice cream, vanilla ice cream, and strawberry ice cream. It may also be made with gelato, though it would then be called Neapolitan gelato, instead. Served in brick-like slices with equal amounts of each flavor, this ice cream dates back to the 19th century in America. It is called “Neapolitan” ice cream due to its roots in Naples, Italy.
When Neapolitan immigrants began arriving in America in the 19th century, they introduced a treat called spumoni. Though the Neapolitans experimented with different flavor combinations, they soon realized that chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice creams were the most popular in America due to their abundant availability. Over time, this tri-colored “Neapolitan-style” ice cream simply came to be called just that: Neapolitan ice cream. Spumoni went on to exist as a different type of dessert all together.
In modern times, Neapolitan ice cream is quite different than spumoni. Both desserts are made with a variety of flavors, though the similarities really stop there. Neapolitan is traditionally made in a rectangular or square mold, however, while classic spumoni is made in a round mold. Additionally, Neapolitan ice cream molds are made up of about one-third of each flavor.
The spumoni-making process is not so exact. This dish has three varying flavors, which might include chocolate, pistachio, and cherry or vanilla. It is also layered with nuts and cherry bits. Traditional Neapolitan, on the other hand, is prepared and served without toppings or additional flavors. Neapolitan is generally served on a plate to accent the presentation created by three different colors of ice cream, while spumoni is often served in a round dish.
Neapolitan ice cream is manufactured by many companies and sold year-round at most grocery stores. Spumoni is more of a niche dessert. It is often found on the dessert menu at Italian restaurants and thus considered more of a delicacy than Neapolitan ice cream. Spumoni is also marketed during the holidays, most likely because of its green and red color combinations reminiscent of Christmas.
When associated with dessert, the term Neapolitan typically refers to a dessert with three distinct layers. Neapolitan gelatin molds and Neapolitan cakes are also popular in America and across the world. When referring to such non-ice cream desserts, however, it is important to note that although the term Neapolitan has been borrowed, the goodies aren’t necessarily Italian-made.