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).
Indeed, it wasn't until the 1980s that published references to tiramisu began to appear. Two Treviso restaurants get the credit: El Toula (from cookbook authors Claudia Roden and Anna del Conte and Saveur magazine) and Le Beccherie (from several Italian magazines and cookbooks).
El Toula "was after us," Iannaccone said. "They print it because it's famous. We're not famous. And we don't care."
(Neither, for the record, does the owner of El Toula, Arturo Filippini. When reached by phone in Treviso, he admitted that El Toula had only "contributed" to the development of tiramisu. As far as he knew it was invented "sometime in the 1950s" in a casa chiuso -- a house of ill repute -- for women who, you guessed it, needed a pick-me-up.)
What Iannaccone does care about is the attribution to Le Beccherie. Though he has no invoices to prove it, he claims that his late brother, Giuseppe, sold tiramisu to Le Beccherie, whose owners passed it off as their own.
Le Beccherie owner Carlo Campeol says that's preposterous. In a telephone interview, Campeol insisted that he's never met or even heard of Iannaccone or his restaurant Piedigrotta.
Stuck in the middle of a culinary he-says-he-says, I turned to Pietro Mascioni, the husband of a Los Angeles cooking teacher who became an amateur tiramisu-ologist after reading about Iannaccone's claim last year in foodie newsletter the Rosengarten Report ( http://www.davidrosengarten.com). The recipe printed in the newsletter directs you to first make a zabaglione, then a pastry cream, and it "seemed bogus," Mascioni said. "It's a chef's recipe. Wait two days for this, then make that. It's not something that you would do in Italy. Everything there is very simple and done on the spot." (Rosengarten, whose staff worked with Iannaccone to nail down the recipe, disagrees: "People want to believe that it's an old folk recipe that drifted into the kitchen. But what is clear is that tiramisu was invented by an Italian pastry chef, so it's likely it wouldn't be rustic.")
Mascioni began to search through his vast collection of Italian cookbooks and magazines. Finally, in a 1981 edition of "Vin Veneto," he found a series of recipes for coffee desserts collected by respected gourmet Giuseppe Maffioli. There, for the first time in print, was a recipe for tiramisu.
"Born recently, less than two decades ago, in the city of Treviso is a dessert called Tiramesu which was made for the first time in a restaurant, Alle Beccherie, by a pastry chef called Loly Linguanotto," the introduction, in Italian, declares loftily, using the Venetian dialect in the spelling of the dessert's name. "The dessert and its name, tiramesu, which signifies its nutritious and restorative properties, became immediately popular and was copied with fidelity and variations not only in the restaurants of Treviso and the region but throughout Veneto and Italy."
The recipe that follows, what Maffioli calls "tiramesu legittimo," combines eggs, sugar, mascarpone and coffee-soaked ladyfingers. There is no alcohol, because, as Campeol explained, it was served to children and the elderly.
A subsequent recipe for "refined" tiramisu includes rum or Marsala in the mix.
"The story is very credible," said Mascioni, who traveled to Treviso to talk to the Campeols last fall. There, matriarch Alba Campeol told Mascioni that she got the idea for the dessert after the birth of one of her children. She was very weak in bed and her mother-in-law brought her a zabaglione, spiked with coffee to give her energy.
When she returned to the restaurant, she worked with her chef, Liguanotto, to make a layered dessert that they called tiramesu. (Mascioni's account of his visit is at his wife's Web site: http://www.annamariavolpi.com.)
The facts, such as they are, do point to Le Beccherie as the inventors of tiramisu. But, as the Campeols stipulate, their recipe never contained Marsala.
And the tiramisu that swept the world? It has a hearty dose of the stuff. It's the Marsala's depth that balances the strong coffee and the creamy zabaglione and gives the dessert sophistication, or as the gourmet Maffioli acknowledged, a certain "refinement."
And that's the way Iannaccone says he's always made tiramisu. The ladyfingers are dipped quickly in coffee so they hold their shape. The zabaglione, a mix of egg yolks, sugar, Marsala, lemon zest and vanilla extract, and the pastry cream, made from milk, egg yolks, sugar and flour, are made separately, and allowed to chill overnight before being gently folded with mascarpone and whipped cream before assembly.
That may seem complicated to Mascioni and others, but Iannaccone explains that's only because we're used to making tiramisu "the cheap and easy way."
It may be "just a dessert," but it was meant, Iannaccone said, to be a showcase -- for the flavors of the region and his skill as a pastry chef.
"In 2001, the U.S. Congress recognized Antonio Meucci. You know who he is?" said Iannaccone, stabbing his finger in the air. "He invent the telephone. The credit will come."
Piedigrotta, 319 S. Central Ave., Baltimore, 410-522-6900, and 1065 S. Charles St. (in Cross Street Market), Baltimore; 410-244-5543. (In several months, the South Central Avenue shop will move to a larger space at 1390 Bank St.)http://www.piedigrottabakery.com.