April 10, 1994|By PETER JENSEN

Sam Baldwin is fretting over the pitfalls of dating when his needling friend, Jay, utters the fateful word.


"What is tiramisu?" Sam asks.

"You'll find out."

"Well, what is it?"

"You'll see."

"Some woman is going to want me to do it to her and I won't know what it is."

"You'll love it."

"This is going to be tough. Tough. Much tougher than I thought it would be," concludes an exasperated Sam.


Tough? You want to hear tough? Sam and Jay are mere fiction. The two characters portrayed by actors Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner in "Sleepless In Seattle" are never seen dealing with tiramisu again.

Try this assignment: Sample tiramisu night after night to get a feel of what pleasure-seekers in Baltimore are confronting. Order it again and again and again until you see it in your dreams.

Good thing it's nothing more strenuous than dessert.

That little snippet of dialogue from last summer's hit movie had nationwide ramifications. It helped propel this relatively simple Italian dessert that sounds like a chapter in the Kamasutra into a restaurant staple.

To understand the implications of the tiramisu phenomenon, this reporter was dispatched to a smattering of restaurants and caterers to investigate their versions of the dish. Observations were made, prices were checked, tough questions were asked and several notebooks were filled with information.

As a result of all this probing, prodding and poking -- but mostly eating, eating, eating -- the truth was slowly revealed.

Say hello to the dessert of the '90s. Seriously, it's no passing fancy.

If you haven't been introduced yet, tiramisu is a creamy blend of flavors, a sensual delight that seems entirely appropriate as a double-entendre: It's a guilty pleasure, a sinfully rich climax of flavors.

There are many variations on the dish, but the basic ingredients are consistent. Tiramisu mingles ladyfingers soaked in coffee or espresso and liquor, with a fluffy pudding made of eggs or egg custard, cream, sugar and mascarpone (a sweet Italian cheese that tastes like a rich cream cheese), and usually is topped with shaved chocolate or cocoa. It is always served cold.

No wonder it has displaced cheesecake as the popular standard on many restaurant menus. It's relatively easy to make, but hard to resist.

When "Sleepless" was first screened, TriStar Pictures was inundated with questions about this mystery word. Eventually, the studio mailed out a tiramisu recipe that is said to be a favorite of the film's director and writer, Nora Ephron.

TriStar even held a tiramisu taste test on the studio lot, and shipped samples of tiramisu packed in boxes of dry ice to leading critics in New York and Los Angeles before the movie premiered.

"I didn't know what it was until I got that first call," said Susan L. Levin, TriStar's publicity director. "People may not have known what it was before, but they do now. I know we've pushed sales way up."

Not since that cute little extraterrestrial demonstrated a fondness for Reese's Pieces in "E. T." has a movie inspired such a clamoring for a confection.

"Tiramisu is a comfort food," says Martha Royall, a Baltimore caterer who supplies the treat wholesale to city restaurants One World Cafe and Adrian's Book Cafe. "I think we're in the height of its popularity now and I don't think it's going to die down."


THE SEARCH FOR THE CONSUMMATE TIRAMISU began aBoccaccio at 925 Eastern Ave. With its formal surroundings, traditional menu and Little Italy venue, it seemed the perfect place to find a classic.

The restaurant's $4.75 serving is a best seller and deservedly so. You can see the layers of moistened spongecake alternating with a rich, but light, cream. The tastes are subtle, and it was hard to put a finger on the liquor flavor.

Chef Giovanni Rigato later explained that he uses grappa, an Italian brandy. His recipe is derived from a New York version he encountered "five or six" years ago and he has been preparing it ever since.

"People like the espresso taste, the little bit of pastry, and everything about it," Mr. Rigato says. "They go for something light. It's a good dessert."

Just two blocks away, the variation at Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop, 222 Albemarle St., is quite different. For $4.10, a diner gets a serving smothered in whipped cream with a maraschino cherry on top.

The flavors are strong and sweet. Coffee liqueur augments the espresso. The mound of whipped cream makes the portion seem huge.

Owner Nick Vaccaro said he also began offering tiramisu six years ago, but it has become "phenomenally" popular in just the past year (although sales still lag far behind the classic cannoli).

He sells "75 to 85" of the $13.55 family-size versions to take-out customers and restaurants weekly. Each serves four to five people.

"It has that nice cliche name to it," Mr. Vaccaro confides. "It sounds so elegant and worldly. When you actually try it, then you find out it's good, too."

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