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January 4th, 2006 Ivy Manning | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Come Pick Me Up

Tracking the elusive tiramisu.

     
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Tiramisu at Caffe Mingo's original Northwest 21st Avenue location is the real Italian deal.
IMAGE: JENNA BIGGS
Over a quickly disappearing plate of tiramisu, a friend asked me what my New Year's resolution was. When I finished licking my spoon, I declared, "My resolution is not to lose weight, but to gain it. I'm tired of people asking me how I stay so thin. I'm going to get wide as an Escalade by Valentine's Day." And what better way to work on my resolution than examine the holy trinity of sweet, fatty and boozy: tiramisu?

My notions of tiramisu (meaning "pick me up" in Italian), were formed while I was a tender young college student studying in Florence, Italy. It was a rich, loose mascarpone cheese pudding draped casually over very sufficiently espresso- and liqueur-soaked ladyfinger cookies. First creamy, then a caffeine jolt, then the squoosh of whipped cheese and airy cookies dissolving in my mouth, it was a simple, messy experience that was the only thing that distracted my attention away from the handsome fellows that romanced the streets of Florence. If you've had tiramisu locally, you know that seldom is the experience so sensuous. Here's some of what Portland has to offer:

Mama Mia (439 SW 2nd Ave., 295-6464) An acquaintance raved about the beauty of the tiramisu ($5.50) here. What I didn't know was that this acquaintance has a wicked sweet tooth. Though this version had the just-right coffee flavor lurking in its cakey layers, its fluffy, über-sweet filling was too much for me. Sugar junkies will love it. I myself am a creamy-cheese junkie.

Basta's (410 NW 21st Ave., 274-1572) With a high-rise construction of half a dozen layers of cake soaked with booze, a crème anglaise lattice top and cocoa stars on the plate ($6), the award for prettiest tiramisu goes to Basta's. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a thimble's worth of custardy filling. It sorta reminded me of Joan Rivers: boozy, dry and very lean.

3 Doors Down (1429 SE 37th Ave., 236-6886) I was getting warmer: 3 Doors' tiramisu included five actual ladyfingers generously soaked in rum and cloaked in creamy, puffy mascarpone ($6). This specimen disappeared more quickly than any of the others because it was so light and yummy. It was close to perfect, but the flavor of rum lingered—not a flavor I normally associate with tiramisu, and certainly not a flavor I equate with Italy.

Assaggio (7742 SE 13th Ave., 232-6151) When four out of four people opt to put their fork down rather than finish a helping of fat-laden sugar in front of them, you know something is not right. Assaggio's génoise sponge cake ($6.75) was dry, the soaking liquid watery, and the smattering of stuff holding the layers together was stark white, not the buff color of mascarpone.

Caffe Mingo (807 NW 21st Ave., 226-4646) Served in a small terra-cotta gratin dish, this dessert ($6) consisted of two discs of sponge cake soaked in plenty of Illy espresso and Marsala wine, suspended in a loose off-white pudding that tasted like sweet, unadulterated mascarpone cheese. One bite of this stuff and I got, well, tingly...down there. "Pick me up," indeed.

Since I found Mingo's version, I've been sizing up wide-load SUVs, and yes, you'll be happy to know that I'm getting close to my goal, but there's more girth to gain. So...where's the best macaroni and cheese in town?

 
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