Chocolate is not generally one of the first items that come to mind when thinking about Italy. Chocolate has a long history in Italy linked to regional traditions, specific ingredients from specific terroirs, and superior artisanal craftsmanship. In the chocolate market, Italy competes with Belgium and France, better known chocolate making countries. There are four principal chocolate producing regions in Italy: Sicily, Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto.
All four of these regions have long traditions making chocolates which span hundreds of years. Each region produces a different type of chocolate and uses particular ingredients. The Medici family from the Tuscan city of Florence, for example, was among the first to drink hot chocolate in cups. Their chocolate apparently was enhanced by floral notes such as Jasmine flowers while some modern Tuscan producers also use refined local olive oil to flavor their products
Piedmont on the other hand has always been quite well known for their chocolates which are made with hazelnuts known as nocciole in Italian while the Veneto makes chocolates with local products such as grappa or honey.
Sicily, known for chocolates with pepperoncino, citrus fruits and pistachios has a very long history with chocolate which began under Spanish rule. The Spaniards had discovered chocolate through their possessions in the Americas. The most famous area where chocolate is made in Sicily is a county called Modica.
Chocolate from Modica is very unique. It is textured and crunchy and quite unlike almost every other chocolate around the world today. In fact, chocolate from
Modica is more similar to that of the Aztec Indians than it is to the traditions of Piedmont or Tuscany where creamier chocolates are made. These types of regional particularities are what make Italian chocolate so special and so interesting. Be it a cremino from Piedmont or a crunchy bar from Modica or a modern chocolate from Tuscany, Italy seemingly has a chocolate for every taste.
Years ago I wrote an article about chocolate and interviewed Monica Meschini, a chocolate shop owner in Florence and an expert chocolate taster. It was fascinating. At the time, she said that when tasting chocolate you have to do a sensorial analysis, much like tasting tea or wine. One does both a visual exam and then a more fun, exam of how the chocolate tastes on your palate. “Chocolate should have a deep color but not be too black because that means it has been over toasted to hide defects in the original product,” Meschini said.
I was reminded of that interview and my chocolate article this summer when I happened on the most extraordinary shop in Bagno a Ripoli, Vitali. They made exquisite chocolate and the owner and I had a long conversation about their expansion plans – to Japan – and chocolate. I rarely think of chocolate in the summer but those at Vitali were memorable all year long. Italian artisanal workmanship in sculpture as in chocolate is always a cut above all else. Their chocolates are not available in the States as of yet but I think it is just a matter of time. At least I hope so.