The Mysterious Origins of Tiramisu, the Dessert That Took the ‘80s by Storm

Spend an evening walking around Manhattan’s Little Italy and you can’t help but notice Ferrara Bakery & Cafe, the name in marquee lights at 195 Grand Street. Inside, it’s mostly tourists in a fast-moving line to the hostess stand, waiting for a seat at one of the neighborhood’s oldest shops — here since 1892, open ‘til midnight.

With its checkered floors and filled pastry cases, Ferrara offers diners amari, limoncello, or espresso to sip with pastries like sfogliatelle, cannoli, or tiramisu, three iconic Italian desserts. Sfogliatelle’s many layers, filled with semolina and ricotta laced with candied orange peel, originated in Naples in the 1600s, while cannolis come from Palermo, with Arab crossover ingredients of orange flower water and pistachios.

“How does a dessert that was barely known in three years ago suddenly become so popular?” asked the Times in 1985.

Tiramisu — that slice of cake or cup layered with mascarpone, sponge cake, savoiardi (also known as ladyfingers, those sponge cake biscuits shaped like thick digits), drizzled with espresso and dusted with cocoa powder — is another story. Unlike sfogliatelle or the cannoli, tiramisu doesn’t fall among the OGs of Italian desserts, and it didn’t earn a proper introduction into America’s restaurant world until the 1980s. But it has never gone away: Today, you’d be hard pressed to visit a red sauce joint or regional Italian spot and not find it; as its name “tiramisu” points out, the sugar-, coffee-, and sometimes booze-laced treat garnered a rabid following thanks to its ability to act as as a “pick me up.”

So “how does a dessert that was barely known in New York three years ago suddenly become so popular?” asked Marian Burros in The New York Times in 1985. That year, tiramisu had also made its way onto menus in the New York suburbs, such as the just-opened Front St. Trattoria in Red Bank, New Jersey, where co-owner Valerie Auferio regularly sold out of it.

Just after Lidia Bastianich opened her acclaimed restaurant Felidia on the Upper East Side in 1981, tiramisu “took everyone’s palate by storm,” she says now. Though it’s not the kind of dessert that would fall under Nouvelle Cuisine, which made a mark in America around the same time, tiramisu has a characteristic lightness that people were really into at the time. And it didn’t take a superchef to make it, Bastianich adds.

As tiramisu made its way onto menus stateside and abroad, Bastianich recognized the dish from her Istrian childhood, variations on the treat her grandmother made for her as an after school snack (she’d also make the dish if someone was sick or if a family member just had a baby). “She called it ‘tira me su,’ in Venetian dialect,” Bastianich says, a phrase that eventually became the word tiramisu.

Bastianich’s grandmother would make the dessert, sending her outside to collect eggs from their chickens.

For Bastianich, the dish is associated with several fond memories. To make the dessert, her grandmother would send her outside to collect eggs from their chickens, “and I remember the eggs were still warm,” she says. Then her grandmother would crack the yolks into a bowl with sugar to make zabaglione, a loose custard — although she’d make it without the sweet dessert wine or booze, as it’s often done today. “She’d anchor the bowl between her knees and whisk vigorously,” Bastianich says. Then her grandmother would spoon the zabaglione in bowls, pour in a bit of espresso, and serve with dried bread or cookies for dunking.

Bastianich’s childhood tiramisu with zabaglione is one of the dessert’s many adaptations, according to Burros, and the origins of versions available in restaurants by the mid-’80s were “hazy as the authentic recipe,” she wrote. By her estimation, in 1987, the “deceptively airy but shamefully rich creation in the mousse-pudding family has at least 200 variations, according one authoritative source.” Pastry chefs might add “zabaglione, almonds, whipped cream, or any of a wide variety of spirits; some substitute cocoa for chocolate… Others use only the yolks to make a zabaglione that is either combined with the mascarpone or served in a separate layer,” she wrote.

Photos: RossHelen/Shutterstock

Decades after opening Felidia, Bastianich sought more about tiramisu’s history as she was researching her 2007 cookbook, Lidia’s Italy: Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most. According to Bastianich’s friend Celeste Tonon, chef/owner of Ristorante da Celeste, open in Treviso since the ‘70s, his mentor, Speranza Garatti, was “the true mother of tiramisu.”

Tonon claims that in the early 1960s, Garatti served the dish in a goblet, calling it coppa imperiale. After Garatti made the imperial cup dessert, her friend Ado Campeol, restaurateur of Le Beccherie, made one of his own and changed the name from coppa imperiale to tiramisu, “giving way to a dispute about who had invented it,” according to Garatti’s obituary, which ran after her death in March 2010.

Who should actually get credit for inventing tiramisu is a matter of dispute.

Starting in the early ‘70s, Le Beccherie — a restaurant run by the Campeol family from 1939 until its closure in 2014 — has gotten “official” credit for inventing tiramisu. (In her book, Bastianich gives credit to Garatti, writing that she was thrilled when Tonon “passed on to me the original assemblage of ladyfingers and mascarpone cream.”)

Today at Felidia, current executive chef Fortunato Nicotra makes seasonal tiramisu, as well as one with Nutella and served with coffee cookies for dunking. At places like Pasticceria Rocco on Bleecker Street and in Bay Ridge, the bakery sells a custardy tiramisu in a cup as well as a cake version, big as a brick, with vast sponge cake layers between pastry cream.

“We’ve had both for a while,” a Pasticceria Rocco in Bay Ridge manager says, citing the Village’s location as a bakery since the 1890s. “Bakers have passed along the same recipes from pastry chef to pastry chef.” He cited three previous owners of the Village location, from Joe Zema to Rocco Generoso to Rocco Jr., who’s now the head pastry chef and the owner who renamed the Bleecker Street location from Rocco’s Pastry Shop and Espresso Café. At Front St. Trattoria in Red Bank, Aufiero served a custardy sheet pan version made with ladyfingers and mascarpone for years, but says she took off the menu a couple years ago due to flagging sales.

 

Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock

But as with any once haute dish, newer versions are emerging along with the next generations of chefs. Onetime pastry chef Brooks Headley — who won the 2013 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef — prefers a tiramisu that’s a little gloppy or soupy. In his 2014 book Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts, he offers a recipe for “the easiest and most delicious version of tiramisu” he’s eaten, calling for good quality, fresh-brewed espresso and “the best imported Italian mascarpone you can find.” Though booze in tiramisu has a “checkered tradition,” Headley uses a little rum rather than Marsala, in a small enough quantity so it’s not overwhelming. “I don’t tend to make boozy desserts,” he says now.

But it’s raw eggs in particular that Headley says are essential to tiramisu. “They have a specific flavor” that’s different from cooked eggs, a major factor in what he likes about tiramisu, the dessert that “doesn’t taste like what it is.”

“Tiramisu is this mutant flavor that doesn’t exist in nature. And that’s why people love it.”

Headley doesn’t drink coffee, or in this case, espresso, and yet he appreciates the dessert. “The sum is better than the parts,” he says. “Between the mascarpone, sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, tiramisu is this mutant flavor that doesn’t exist in nature. And that’s why people tend to love it.”

Before moving to New York, in his first kitchen job in the ’90s, Headley made tiramisu “ten thousand times” when he worked at Roberto Donna’s Galileo in Washington, DC. Back then, he followed instructions, making tiramisu in individual ring molds. “I loved to make every part of them because I loved eating all the scraps,” he says. At New York City’s Del Posto, where Headley served as pastry chef for years, it was different. “We rarely made tiramisu because it just wasn’t something we’d put on the dessert menu,” he says — except for private parties and banquets.

Recently, Headley, now the chef/owner of Superiority Burger, realized he’ll likely never make tiramisu professionally again, because the vegetarian East Village outpost is committed to cooking without eggs. Since then, he’s discussed the possibility of introducing tiramisu, served in the cups he’s using for his (fantastic) gelato and sorbet. But an employee pointed out that because of those eggs, it would defy what Superiority Burger is about.

“I’m kind of sad,” he says of the lack of tiramisu on his menu. “Because I love it.”

Lead photo: alexpro9500/Shutterstock
Melissa McCart is a restaurant columnist for Newsday; you can also find her recent work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Saveur, and Eater.
Editor: Erin DeJesus