The Trail of Tiramisu

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"It's not a big invention," said Carminantonio Iannaccone in a lilting Italian accent. "It's not like the telephone. It's just a dessert."

Iannaccone tugs at his black suspenders and shifts in his chair in the cramped office above Piedigrotta, his even more cramped Baltimore bakery. He's being modest. Because it's not any dessert that Iannaccone (pronounced yahn-a-CONE-ay) claims to have created. It's tiramisu. If Iannaccone actually invented Italy's most famous sweet -- and there's reason to believe he might have -- then I am sitting in the presence of gastronomic greatness, the Italian equivalent of the Earl of Sandwich.

Iannaccone's story is simple. He trained as a pastry chef in the southern city of Avellino, then migrated to Milan to find work at the age of 12. In 1969 he married his wife, Bruna, and opened a restaurant also called Piedigrotta in Treviso, where he cooked up a dessert based on the "everyday flavors of the region": strong coffee, creamy mascarpone, eggs, Marsala and ladyfinger cookies. He says it took him two years to perfect the recipe, which was originally served as an elegant, freestanding cake.

Tiramisu, which means "pick me up" -- a reference to its shot of espresso -- was an instant hit. Chefs, Iannaccone says, came to taste it, and soon they were either making their own versions or he was supplying them with his. By the early '80s, tiramisu had become ubiquitous throughout Italy and beyond. Miami Beach had a restaurant called Tiramisu, and the dessert was considered a status symbol among the Tokyo elite.

Iannaccone's tiramisu is tremendous, a sophisticated and boozy rendition that has little in common with the soupy mush that too often passes as the original. "Today, it's a mess," said Iannaccone, sounding somewhat defeated. "But if you like it and your grandma made it that way," he shrugged, "fine."

Still, the whole thing seemed awfully unlikely. Why would the creator of tiramisu be operating a tiny bakery on the outskirts of Baltimore's Little Italy? And would the inventor even be alive? Italians pride themselves on their culinary traditions, not newfangled innovation (like those crazy Catalonians). Surely, a classic like tiramisu would date back to the Renaissance. Catherine de Medici gave us artichokes, truffles, gelato, even the fork. Surely, she would have had a hand in tiramisu, too.

In an age when chefs are busily copyrighting recipes, patenting new cooking techniques and suing one another for ripping off restaurant concepts -- as New York chef Rebecca Charles did last month -- you'd think it would be easy to track down who served up the first tiramisu.

But 40 years ago, in a small Italian town, no one, especially Carminantonio Iannaccone, apparently thought to boast about a new dish or save a menu that might prove when it was first served. He didn't know tiramisu would become an icon of Italian gastronomy, breeding such bastard children as "berrymisu" and pumpkin tiramisu trifle. He didn't know that in 2007 it would pull up 4.9 million hits on Google vs. just 792,000 for the mighty cannoli.

As Iannaccone likes to say, it's just a dessert.

Iannaccone, who still struggles with English and recounted much of his story in Italian, says he doesn't have the time, or the energy, to prove that he is tiramisu's inventor. So I decided to do some legwork on his behalf. First, I examined the historical legends: One says the dessert was invented in the 17th century in honor of the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici, but soon became the favorite of courtesans who used it for a little extra energy before performing their duties and gave it the nickname "pick me up." Another says it was invented in Turin in the mid-19th century at the request of Italy's first prime minister, Camillo Cavour, a renowned gourmand who needed a pick-me-up for the trying task of unifying the Italian peninsula.

Good stories, both. But neither is true, Italian food experts agree. Mascarpone, one of tiramisu's key ingredients, is native to the northern Veneto region and wouldn't have been found in Tuscany hundreds of years ago. Even in the 19th century, without refrigeration, a dessert made with uncooked eggs would likely have sickened more people than it pleased.

Next, I scoured authoritative cookbooks for a recipe that would predate Iannaccone's claim. But, as he predicted, niente: British cookbook author Elizabeth David makes no mention of the dessert in her 1954 "Italian Food," nor does Marcella Hazan in "The Classic Italian Cookbook" (1973).

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