I tasted tiramisu for the first time in Italy. It was summer, just before I turned fourteen, and we were visiting a friend, A., not far from Naples. I remember squid stuffed with..something, and cooked in its own ink, some kind of pasta, and...tiramisu. I was in heaven. Coffee, chocolate, a whisper of liqueur, tender savoiardi, creamy mascarpone filling. I don't remember if I managed to score another serving, but I remember having another piece for breakfast, along with a huge bowl of milky coffee. Tiramisu means pick-me-up, and pick-me-up it did.
There have been many tiramisus since then, most of them very good. Some time after that first taste, A. and her mother were visiting Seattle, and they offered to teach me how to make it, the authentic Italian way. I went to their friend's house, into the smallish kitchen, helped A.'s mother seperate eggs, beat them with sugar using a wooden spoon, until pale golden and creamy. She didn't use a measuring cup for the sugar, only an ordinary tablespoon. Fifteen or twenty spoonfuls. Then the mascarpone was beaten in until everything was smooth. On the stove was one of those Moka coffee pots, a bottom reservoir holding water that, when it boils, is drawn through a middle section which holds the ground coffee in a filter, up into a top reservoir. As the coffee fills the upper pot, it sputters enticingly, maddeningly, and impatient, A. tries to peek. Lascia, says her mother, slapping her hand away. Mothers are the same in any language, at any age.
The savoiardi are briefly dipped in the coffee, just long enough to dampen them without making them soggy, arranged in a dish, and covered with the mascarpone filling and cocoa powder. It is everything I remember it to be. I have had others, some more like cakes, made with slices of sponge cake instead of ladyfingers, some spooned out of casseroles like the original version. Later, nervous about raw eggs, I would make tiramisu with whipped cream and mascarpone. It was my party dish, until I discovered bread pudding years afterwards. It is homely and simple, easy, and delicious.
And then last summer I had dinner at La Rosetta in Rome. I've described it before. We ate dinner outside in the falling light of a Roman August. The tiramisu came in an elegant stemmed glass, layers of espresso-moistened cake, creamy mascarpone, incredibly light, with a dollop of intense granita di caffé, all covered with a drift of whipped cream that was so airy it seemed to float. It was perfectly refined, delicate, another creature entirely from the homely one I had eaten all those years ago. Perfection.