Tiramisu is widely regarded as the quintessential Italian dessert. In fact, it’s one of the most recognized Italian words among non-Italians worldwide (along with spaghetti, pizza, espresso, and mozzarella–who says we’re obsessed with food?). Traditionally made with ladyfingers or sponge cake dipped in coffee and layered with a creamy mix of eggs, sugar, and mascarpone cheese and sprinkled with cocoa powder, it’s hard not to like tiramisu. Some variations add rum, marsala, or a coffee liqueur. While many have accepted that there is no one true recipe for “real” tiramisu, the debate over its origins is far less settled.
The northeast region of Veneto claims that tiramisu was invented in its town of Treviso during the late 1960s or early 1970s. They insist that tiramisu was first introduced at a trattoria (casual cafe or diner type of restaurant) called Le Beccherie. One story states that a new mother invented the dessert in an effort to boost her energy after her son’s birth. Tiramisu does mean “pick-me-up,” so that theory seems plausible. Another version of that origin story claims that the owner of the restaurant had an apprentice whose maiden name was Tiramisu and that the two of them invented the dessert together. Yet another story has the owner of a nearby bakery claiming that while the first tiramisu was, in fact, sold at Le Beccherie in Treviso, it wasn’t made there. Instead, this baker claims that he invented tiramisu on Christmas Eve 1969 and that it was his confection that Le Beccherie sold. The area has long lobbied for the European Union to officially recognize Treviso as the true birthplace of tiramisu just as Naples successfully lobbied to be recognized as the birthplace of pizza.
Recent research, vehemently refuted by Treviso’s residents, suggests that tiramisu actually first appeared in the nearby region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia during the 1950s. Evidence has been found of recipes for “tirime su” produced by a chef in this region, in a village near the Slovenian border. Another recipe for “tirime su” that resembles tiramisu in terms of ingredients and compilation seems to have been served in Tolmezzo, a town not far from the Austrian border, in the late 1950s.
There are some anecdotal sources that claim the cake goes back as far as the late 1600s, but there are no printed records or recipes to support this claim. Another strictly anecdotal claim is that the dessert was actually invented as an energy-boosting snack for prostitutes in the 1950s. Again, there’s no documentation to support this particular claim, and none seem eager to embrace the theory.
The first appearance of any recipes bearing the name of tiramisu in cookbooks wasn’t until the 1960s. This would seem to indicate that perhaps Treviso wasn’t the true birthplace of this Italian treat since they claim that they invented it late during that decade or early the next (after recipes for it were already in print).
Regardless of any proof, no matter how substantial or incontrovertible, and regardless of any official title being bestowed by any governing body, the bittersweet battle over the birthplace of tiramisu is likely to continue. I say let’s settle the debate with a good old-fashioned taste test. At the sites claiming creation. I’ll be the judge. And if it’s a tie, I’ll just have to have another bite or two.