Why you should care
Because this Italian sweet was a sexual energizer.
It’s a cold winter evening in 1953, in the northern Italian town of Treviso, but 24-year-old Paolo Bisattin has been warmed up nicely by the flavor of sex. Walking home from a brothel near his house, he carries a bowlful of delicious cake given to him by a gorgeous blond prostitute. “‘Paolo, this will restore your energy,” she told him. “You’re a stud, but now you need something to lift you up if you want to have another ride.” He was lying in bed naked and knackered after their lovemaking session when the blonde handed him a cupful of the “dense yellow cream with a divine scent,” Bisattin, now 87, recalls.
He closes his eyes, clearly delighting in his walk down memory lane. But he still can’t quite believe that the secret brothel cake of his younger years would turn into Italy’s iconic dessert: tiramisù.
Treviso has been known since medieval times for its wild, passionate, epicure-loving inhabitants, says local historian Armando Trevisan. It was also a hot spot for sex, with one of the highest concentrations of “pleasure houses” across the boot, a trade that came to an abrupt end when the government shut down brothels in 1958. The preferred brothel dish of tiramisù, history’s first Viagra, was not served as a dessert but as a main course to clients and sex workers alike.
The idea was to keep the sex, and thus the money, flowing, so the brothels had contracts with local farmers to bring them fresh eggs each morning.
“Tiramisù” in local dialect means to “shake me up, bang me” or “pull it up.” The “calorie bomb … was simply made, with shaken egg yolks and sugar that gave it a crunchy edge [and] served inside a glass cup with a spoon to all clients after heavy sex sessions,” says Trevisan. The idea was to keep the sex, and thus the money, flowing, so the brothels had contracts with local farmers to bring them fresh eggs each morning. Savoiardi ladyfingers (named after the city of Turin’s ruling Savoy family), mascarpone cream and coffee were added later.
“Tiramisù stood as a magical moment before and after my meetings with the prostitute, who, by the way, was always the same girl. At least I’ve been faithful to her,” says Bisattin, who remains unmarried and happily admits to his passionate mischief. When he took the tiramisù back home with him that day, he had the luck of gulping it down without having to share. But many of Treviso’s wives were well aware of what was being done — and eaten — inside those dens of vice.
The wives closed their eyes to where their husbands were and what they were doing while there. They preferred to have their spouses confined to a brothel rather than running around town in search of romance, argues Trevisan, noting that “in Treviso, regularly visiting a brothel was a cool must, a status symbol.” It was part of the local culture, the place where VIPs like prelates, bishops and priests rubbed shoulders with institutional leaders, ministers, politicians and businessmen.
Paradixocally, the closure of whorehouses legalized the now internationally famous dessert. Le Beccherie, a Treviso tavern that remains open to this day, adopted the recipe, popularizing it outside of the sex enclaves and saving it from oblivion. “This is where the legal, known history of tiramisù started,” says Andrea Corletto, Le Beccherie’s manager. “Here, ordinary people first tasted this delicacy, and we’re proud to defend and carry on the tradition.”
Today, locals love to pair their tiramisù with another aphrodisiac, created at nearby tavern-nightclub Amorous Hostaria al Cavallino, a former medieval way station where knights, travelers and pilgrims rested their horses for the night and relaxed in the arms of sensual women. The decor includes flashing disco lights, and the color red dominates. Bartender Alessandro Tonon has concocted a drink called “Fogliarossa” (Red Leaf), made of fizzy wine and an infusion of radicchio rosso trevigiana, the premium red chicory that grows exclusively in the area. Two heart-shaped leaves of the chicory are placed in a glass, and the drink magically makes the blood flow to the “right” body part, Tonon claims, pumping it where it’s needed most to help men remain erect and energetic.
Served with tiramisù and a few radicchio leaves to suck on, the combination is a sexual electric shock more potent than any potion those lascivious ladies of the 1950s could have ever created.