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

Coffee-soaked ladyfingers journeyed from Treviso to Little Italy.

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.

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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.

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.

A couple years later, tiramisu was on the menu at Le Relais Plaza in Paris, listed as "Tiramisu — creation 1987," described as a "biscuit mousse, Marscapone [sic] et liqueurs." By 1989, it was an "obsession" in San Francisco, reported Jeannette Ferrary, also in the Times. "Discussions of ’my favorite tiramisu’ have even reached the level of legitimate dinner-party conversation," she wrote. But how did the tiramisu emerge in the ‘80s, and how did the recipes evolve from what many remember their grandmothers making back in Italy? It’s unclear.

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.

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Photo by RossHelen/Shutterstock.


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