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How Nico Pastry Chef Leigh Omilinsky Builds a Better Tiramisu

Welcome to The Hot Dish, a behind the scenes look at the making of the dishes of the moment

Anyone who has eaten at an Italian restaurant probably has memories associated with tiramisu. These probably look less like splitting a slice of the layered dessert with a handsome stranger on a cobblestone patio overlooking the Venetian canals, and more like elbowing your sister over the last bite at Olive Garden. It may be one of Italy's most popular desserts, but it's hardly its most elegant.

Hence was the challenge for pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky, when it came time to revamp the classic at Nico Osteria. "How do you make something so recognizable into something that's your own?" she says from One Off Hospitality's swanky Gold Coast Italian restaurant known as much for its ivy-covered bar and marble kitchen as it is for its freshly prepared crudo and pastas.

It turns out the process to modernize tiramisu was a roundabout one, which took months and started —€” oddly enough —€” with Indian-spiced gelato. "I was playing around and made this gelato that had marsala in it," Omilinsky recalls. "I was thinking completely about changing the chocolate dessert with marsala, hazelnuts, and bananas. It did not make it on the menu, but that gelato was a star." Inspired by that experience, chef Erling Wu-Bower suggested Omilinsky channel her French pastry roots and make a mille feuille. However, layers of chocolate puff pasty and marsala gelato proved to be yet another dud.


Failed and final version of the tiramisu at Nico [Images courtesy of Leigh Omilinsky]

"It is the most maddening and depressing thing, when everything you put on a plate is garbage," Omilinsky says. "But I looked at it and realized, if I add coffee to this, it becomes a tiramisu."

By breaking tiramisu down into its components, Omilinsky was able to compose a dessert that not only pleased her creative side, but also her palate. Chocolate arlette make up the base of the dessert. This type of puff pastry is covered in butter and sugar, rolled, flattened, and baked into a crisp. Coffee semifredo accounts for the espresso component, while chocolate and grappa sauce as well as Mirto-spiked mascarpone, which replaced the marsala gelato that sent her down this rabbit-hole, stand in for the boozy element. The latter is a Sardinian liqueur that is made by macerating the berries of the Myrtle plant. From start-to-finish the tiramisu takes about three days to make.

Compared to the process, the plating is simple. Omilinisky takes an almost architectural approach to layer triangles of arlette with coffee semifreddo and dollops of mascarpone. Smaller triangles are dusted with cocoa powder and placed on top. "Is this a classic tiramisu? No, not event close," Omlinsky says. "But the flavors are there and the cool part is that it makes you think."

Nico Osteria

1015 North Rush Street, , IL 60611 (312) 994-7100 Visit Website