The word tiramisu cropped up during an Internet search for places of interest in Rome. I salivated through the appropriate changes in the Google keyword, and decided that the Coliseum could not possibly be a more satisfying experience.
The interest heightened further with an article in the online edition of The Independent, which mentioned a place in Rome called Enoteca Corsi: “The menu is delicious downhome Roman: pasta e fagioli, gnocchi, carbonara, tripe, oxtail broth, and the tiramisu to end all tiramisu debates.”
The debate could not possibly end without starting. So, armed with useful suggestions from a well-travelled and well-fed friend who could not come due to anticipation anxiety, we set off on a journey to find the ultimate tiramisu in Italy, or at least within a few kilometres’ radius of Venice and Rome.
Trickster city: (above) Venice; where the tiramisu changes form from street to street. Photograph by Thinkstock
The tiramisu is typically a layered Italian cake with eggs, cream, mascarpone cheese, coffee, ladyfinger or savoiardi biscuits and liqueur or rum. It’s built in layers, with varying tastes and texture, and is supposed to have originated in Venice. So the best place to begin the search seemed to be Venice.
The first sampler came at a small confectionery in one of those narrow, cobbled Venetian lanes which you will never ever find again. The small, square, firm, plain-looking tiramisu disappeared in one bite. There was no moist middle, no coffee sprinkled on top and no “hmmmm…” moment. It was a gentle start.
At lunch in Trattoria Al Corazzieri the next day, the friendly waiter, who spoke of social equality and immigration patterns vis-à-vis the Africans selling fake Gucci bags on the roadside, said his tiramisu was the best even as theme music from The Godfather played as his cellphone ringtone. It was at least larger, but cold enough to freeze all senses and not layered enough to be anything more than just a cake.
It just kept getting better as the day progressed though, admittedly, the window display at Ristorante La Tavernetta did not promise much at dinner time. It looked squidgy and old, worn down as if by expectation, saddened by the perpetually abusive Italians.
But it was popular—going by how rapidly the display plates diminished to two within minutes—and I quickly booked mine with the grumpy waiter even before he brought the customary bread basket. Grumpy looked at me as if I had asked for tomato ketchup to supplement perfect Italian cooking but, when the last of the displays did appear on my table, it did not disappoint. Maybe it was the rock-bottom expectation that made this latest version appealing, good in texture, suitably layered, though perhaps the middle was a bit too soggy.
It did occur to me that Venice, which has only tourists, might be bettered by Rome, which seemed to have residents as well. Plus, armed with The Independent review printout and well-fed friend’s list, the stage was set for the grand finale—or the last five leading up to the grand finale.
The Nino near the Spanish Steps is one of those old establishments where gladiators probably roasted their meat. The tiramisu here comes with the strongest dose of sprinkled coffee yet: a thick layer on top that bites into the sweet of the rest. The amalgam of bitter-sweet makes you feel like a part of you is going into blissful slumber while the other part is jolted awake by the shot of caffeine. The taste lingers till the cappuccino arrives. I made a mental note to buy elastic-waisted pants.
We skipped dessert at dinner because the hyped pizza at Pizzeria da Baffetto had taken so long to come (over an hour) that any craving for a sweet finale had dissolved like melted cheese.
The adventure would resume at lunch the next day: another day, another tiramisu.
This was the one: After thanking the lord at the Vatican for blessing me and the world with the tiramisu, we headed to Enoteca Corsi, the one that was supposed to end all debates. I wanted to skip the first three courses and get to the point; after all, as a morbid friend once said, the older we get, the less sure we can be of living till the dessert order. Better sense prevailed though; we waited till all else was consumed (all excellent) before the final order.
The moment, followed by the disappointment. No tiramisu today. No, it had just not been made that day and would be available only the next day. No, they could not make an exception. No, the chef would not like a foot massage. No, the Pope does not take calls from tourists.
Recovering with grace, we left with dignity—no, you cannot check the kitchen—the prospect of tomorrow shining bright. Meanwhile, dinner had to be dealt with, at Osteria del Sostegno, in an obscure lane near the Pantheon. The waitress, a postgraduate in West Asian politics looking for a career as a political analyst and speaking English with an American accent, said their tiramisu was creamy.
It was: the creamiest, richest one we got on the trip, dissolving with every bite yet firm enough not to wobble, which disturbs some people. It also had a thicker biscuit layer, which made some bits crunchy and, unlike others, was layered vertically.
By the next afternoon, after walking many endless miles, the temptation for Enoteca Corsi had waned but the Armando al Pantheon presented the most unique tiramisu so far—without caffeine and without layers. It was fruity, and could have passed off as a torte, despite the hints of cheese and egg yolk.
The Armando also demolished the belief that the tiramisu is a standardized creation: It can actually vary by many shades and ingredients, probably depending on the moody Italian chef.
Do I know which one was the best? That decision cannot be made till I have sampled the one that, apparently, ends all debates, but I loved most of them anyway. They were all worth the waist.