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Where to Pick Up a "Pick-Me-Up" in Noe Valley
By David Moisl
Even if you have never been to Italy, just one bite of tiramisu, the ubiquitous Italian dessert, will have you dreaming of a cobblestone alley lined with small tables lit by candles in Chianti bottles on red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
Tiramisu is Italian for "pick me up," and legend has it that the dessert was invented in a restaurant located next to a brothel. The working girls would drop by the café for a "pick-me-up" between customers. In truth, the name probably derives from the high caloric content (eggs and sugar) and the caffeine in the strong espresso coffee found in most recipes. Tiramisu has many precursors, such as zuppa Inglese (a vanilla sponge cake). But most food historians think it originated in its current form sometime in the 1960s or '70s, in Treviso, a small city north of Venice.
The dessert consists of ladyfingers soaked in espresso coffee and layered with zabaglione cream, made with eggs, mascarpone cheese, sugar, and liquor or wine (brandy, marsala, and rum are some of the spirits used). Topping it off is a sprinkling of cocoa powder.
In the United States, the dessert's popularity is said to have begun right here in San Francisco. That means you can save yourself the trip to Treviso and easily locate this delicacy at dozens of dining establishments around the city. In fact, tiramisu graces the menu of at least eight cafes and restaurants in Noe Valley. The price ranges from $4.25 to $6.50.
Vincenzo Cucco, Italian chef and co-owner of Bacco Ristorante on Diamond Street, says the square, cake-like version of tiramisu is an American invention.
"Traditionally, tiramisu is made in a salad bowl, and the waiter just spoons it out at the table," says Cucco. "It doesn't look that pretty, but even in the best places in Venice, it is served like that. Here we tend to make it square-shaped. Scooping it out of a salad bowl doesn't look right to Americans."
Cucco believes the ingredients are very important. "A lot depends on the mascarpone. An imported one is the best to use. The domestic kind is not creamy enough."
He is partial to Bacardi rum, and suggests using Bonomi ladyfingers. Also, in Cucco's kitchen it's a must that the cream in the tiramisu be made with pure egg whites.
Stefano Coppola, chef-owner of Lupa Trattoria on 24th Street, is particular about the ingredients, too. However, he substitutes whipped cream for egg whites.
Coppola knows that a lot of restaurants are afraid of using raw eggs because of the danger of salmonella. But he cites other reasons for the switch: "The original recipe calls for egg whites, but they don't conserve. They're nice and fluffy at first, then they collapse."
Lupa, named after the female wolf who raised the twins Romolo (the founder of Rome) and Remo, has been serving tiramisu since the day the restaurant opened about three years ago. "Tiramisu is very renowned, so it is always a good seller," says Coppola.
At Noe Valley Pizza Restaurant, a neighborhood institution at 24th and Sanchez streets, Greek proprietor Dennis Vozaites agrees that dinner patrons absolutely love tiramisu. "There's always a great satisfaction in customers saying how delicious it is," he says. It has been on the menu since long before he took over the restaurant in 1998.
Adam Bousiakis opened his Café XO, an Italian-style coffeeshop at the end of Church Street, about three years ago. Although Bousiakis, a trained pastry chef, is originally from Greece, he loves everything Italian, especially tiramisu. "It is very smooth and subtle and has a nice light coffee taste that is not overpowering. It wakes you up when you eat it and perfectly complements the end of a meal."
Adding his two cents to the debate about egg whites vs. whipped cream, Bousiakis says it actually holds better if you combine the two and mix the egg whites into the whipped cream.
Verona Restaurant, just across the Street from Café XO on 30th Street, lays claim to being one of the first San Francisco restaurants to feature the creamy dessert.
According to Greek owner Andreas Kapiniaris, whose grandmother was Italian, tiramisu has been a staple since the restaurant opened in 1985. Kapiniaris says tiramisu is his personal favorite dessert. "After dinner, you want to have some more energy, and the tiramisu keeps you going."
Made with his grandmother's special secret recipe, tiramisu has proven very popular with his customers, Kapiniaris says. The only thing he would disclose about his confection is that he uses rum.
Incanto Restaurant on Church Street also serves tiramisu, but it is not always on the menu, so check first before going just for the dessert. On 24th Street, Pasta Pomodoro and Haystack Pizza are among our tiramisu purveyors, too.
Though Noe Valley's chefs are reluctant to divulge their prized recipes, they all agree that the way you soak the ladyfingers and layer the zabaglione is crucial and can literally make or break tiramisu. Should you attempt to create the dish at home, "You have to be careful not too soak it too much or too little," says Coppola.
"The whole thing is about how you combine it," says Bousiakis. "Don't make it too runny, and don't make it too dry."
And Cucco advises, "Different cookies absorb at different strengths, so experiment."
There are many recipes for tiramisu (often spelled with an accent or an apostrophe at the end) available on the Internet or in books on Italian cooking. We found both a modern and a classic Italian tiramisu recipe on the web site annamariavolpi.com. Anna Maria Volpi's site features recipes from her cookbook The Timeless Art of Italian Cuisine.