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Tiramisu, an Italian trifle born in Treviso half a century ago, got too famous too fast, then coagulated into a stodgy, cloying cliché.

But my mother's version was exquisite. The day of a dinner party, while she got on with the more serious cooking, I helped by dipping the sparkling, sugar-dusted ladyfinger biscuits in very strong coffee spiked with Kahlúa and a few glugs of whatever brandy we had lying around. I layered this with buttery mascarpone cheese loosened up with some cream and egg yolks, which she had violently whisked with hot sugar syrup until they turned thick and pale.

I was a kid, so when the tiramisu went into the fridge to chill, the hours passed slowly. Eventually, after dinner, moments before triumphantly carrying the dish to the table, I shook a wonky tea strainer full of cocoa all over the top—my favorite step.

When each layer is evenly thick and gives with almost no resistance, when the biscuits are nicely soaked—no crunchy bits, no sog—when it has the gentlest whiff of liquor and a lush, dense sort of creaminess, tiramisu can still please a crowd. But I rarely order it at restaurants, where the mascarpone has often been diluted with too much cream and set with gelatin, the whole thing set aside and neglected.

Where restaurants go wrong is in trying to make the portions cut cleanly and appear neat and polished on the plate. The thing is, tiramisu is not neat and polished. It's a delicious mess, glamorous and troublesome like some beloved but drunken Italian movie star nobody wants to hire anymore.

What you need: Champagne-colored ladyfinger biscuits, unsweetened cocoa and whole eggs

There are exceptions: Sal Lamboglia serves a wonderful version at Bar Primi in NYC. It comes to the table just as it should, in a great big slab that can barely hold itself upright. Drooping beautifully, properly bittersweet, it's one of the few restaurant tiramisus that's true to my ideal.

Lamboglia's version owes something to his aunt's recipe. She was born in Naples but now lives in downtown Brooklyn and has been making the dessert consistently, once a week, for half a century. He gleaned tips from his zia, then experimented.

When our Test Kitchen started tinkering with a tiramisu recipe, we talked to Lamboglia to find out what he learned. The chef stressed the importance of using really good ingredients: Italian mascarpone, biscuits that hold up to a dip, organic eggs, strong coffee and marsala (a traditional touch, which he says also delivers just the right amount of sweetness).

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Food Editor Andy Baraghani went for a streamlined, no-cook version: His involves yolks and whites, plus plenty of dark rum, which pairs especially well with coffee. It's airy and light, not too sweet—a perfectly old-school way to cap off a summer dinner party.