At Piedigrotta Bakery, a new generation takes over

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The man who (maybe) invented tiramisu is retiring. Now, a former legal secretary has one more week to master the recipes he’s spent his life perfecting.

Jean Leisher has until the end of March to learn how to make tiramisu from the man who may have invented it.

She’d never cooked professionally until this year. But today, she’s working in the kitchen of Piedigrotta, an Italian bakery bordering Little Italy. Her teachers are Antonio and Bruna Iannaccone, who have owned the shop since 2002, but are now preparing to retire.

They’ve sold the entire shop, including the name, to Leischer, her husband Jerry and another business partner, and have agreed to stay in the shop until March 31 to teach Leisher how to make all the food.

“It’s more been like a family transition moreso than like a business sort of arrangement, which is why they agreed to stay on and help us,” Leisher said.

And there’s a lot of food. There’s several different kinds of cake, and tiramisu, of course. There are the pastas — homemade ravioli and gnocchi, complete with homemade pesto. There’s gelato and the cookies. This past weekend, it was Cucidati and Zeppoli di San Giuseppe for Saint Joseph’s Day, the Italian version of Father’s Day. Soon, it will be Easter cookies.

“They leave next Sunday,” said Leisher, 40. “I’m learning how to make things for Easter now [or else] when it comes and I have to make it on my own, I’m in big trouble.”

So, how did this all come to pass?

One day after work last year, Jean Leisher’s husband, Jerry Leisher, had come home to their place in York, Pa. He was upset. Piedigrotta, one of his favorite spots in Baltimore, was closing its doors for good. The proprietors, Antonio Iannaccone and his wife Bruna, were retiring. Jerry wanted the shop to stay open. He and his friend Jason Hines wanted to buy it.

And they wanted her help. “I said OK, fine,” Leisher said. In January, she quit her job as a legal secretary and put on an apron.

Now in the kitchen, she takes copious notes while Antonio, 70, shows her his trade. “He’s been doing this for so long, so much of what he knows he just does by habit, it’s muscle memory,” Leisher said. “So when I say ‘what about this’ and ‘how do you make that?’ and ‘what about this,’ he just looks at me like I’m crazy … because he’s just done it so long.”

Whether through insanity or culinary genius, Jean Leisher appears unfazed by the task ahead of her.

Of course there are challenges. Her commute from York is “awful fun.”

There’s the variety of creams, different ones to fill the various pastries, many with foreign pronunciations. The oven, too, is taking some getting used to. But Leisher insists that otherwise, it’s simple. “Other than that, it’s [just] ingredients. I hate to say it that way, I don’t mean to make it sound so flip. But Antonio says if you have a passion for it then you’ll be good at it.”

Antonio would know. He began baking at age 9, “due to the economic difficulties in Italy at the time,” according to a brochure he hands out at the bakery.

Originally from southern Italy, he eventually moved to Treviso, in the north. There, he met his wife Bruna, and together, they opened a bakery called Piedigrotta, meaning “foot caves” in Italian. According to The Washington Post, it was here that he invented tiramisu, a combination of espresso, ladyfingers, mascarpone and eggs. (‘Tiramisu’ means ‘pick-me-up’ in Italian — a reference to the espresso). Iannaccone said that other chefs in Treviso got wind of Iannaccone’s creation and began making their own versions, which soon traveled the world.

“It’s not a big invention,” he told The Post in 2007. “It’s not like the telephone. It’s just a dessert.”

Antonio and Bruna moved to the US in the 1990s, opening a new Piedigrotta near Little Italy in 2002. Their bakery gained some fame in 2006, after food writer David Rosengarten reported in his newsletter that Iannaccone was the dessert’s inventor. The Washington Post picked up the story, concluding that there was reason to believe Iannaccone’s claims. (Today, The Post story is printed in sticker form on top of the packages of tiramisu that Piedigrotta sells.)

The Iannaccones won’t divulge how they’ll spend their retirement.

“I don’t know exactly. I no stay home to do nothing, sweetie,” said Bruna, taking a break from the kitchen. She may walk her children’s dogs, or take small catering jobs. “But right now I not think about the job, I think about stop,” she said. Having worked her entire life, it’s time for a break.

As for Leisher, her work is just beginning. She realizes she’s not just taking over the business, but the relationships and loyal followers that come with it — some of whom order Piedigrotta’s cookies from across the country. “It’s a lot to live up to, to make sure that we do them justice and we make them proud,” she said of the Iannaccones. “No pressure.”

Correction: An earlier version misspelled Jean Leisher’s name. The Sun regrets the error.