- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To the long list of yummy delicacies from Italy — pasta, pizza, salami, Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil — we Americans often forget to add chocolate. In Italy, it is “cioccolata” and is pronounced similarly to “chocolate,” but ending with “tah.”

Italy is home to some of the world’s finest chocolate companies, such as Caffarel, Ferrero, Pernigotti and Venchi, and smaller firms such as Amedei and Domori are winning gold medals in international competitions. In just one region of Italy, Piemonte, there are more master chocolatiers than in Belgium and France combined. In Tuscany, there is such a concentration of fine chocolate makers that journalists have dubbed the area between Florence and Pisa the Chocolate Valley.

Italy’s chocolatiers love thinking up new flavors. “It is an Italian’s way to be creative,” says Mariella Maione, owner of Peyrano Chocolates. “Instead of sleeping, we dream up new taste combinations.”

Andrea Slitti of Slitti Chocolates says, “I sometimes start with a name that intrigues me, and then find a flavor to match it.” Another imaginative Chocolate Valley chocolatiers, Paul De Bondt, whose creations include dark chocolate accented with wild fennel and white chocolate flecked with bitter almonds and cocoa nibs, says, “My favorite flavor is the one I have yet to invent.”

Some larger companies hold special monthly creative team meetings to develop new flavors. “A dozen or so specialists — gourmets and technical experts — spend all day brainstorming new chocolates,” says Vincenzo Montuori of Caffarel. One successful result of those meetings is MonViso, the 2007 winner of the most innovative product awarded at the Eurochocolate festival. This coffee, cream and liqueur bonbon is whimsically shaped like the Alpine mountain peak visible from the Caffarel factory.

Milk chocolate gets the short shrift in the United States, where gourmets focus almost exclusively on dark chocolate. The Italians, who love the richer taste of milk chocolate, have managed to retain the sophistication of dark and all of the decadence of milk chocolate. Slitti, a Tuscany-based company, is one of several Italian firms to create a line of milk-dark chocolate hybrids. Instead of the usual 31 percent to 35 percent cocoa content found in most milk chocolates, Slitti’s Lattenero — “milk-dark” — contains cocoa concentrations as high as 45 percent, 51 percent, 62 percent and 70 percent. The result is amazingly smooth, with a milk chocolate flavor but without the excessive sweetness of commercial milk chocolate.

One reason Italian chocolate is so good is that Italians care so much about the purity of ingredients. There is no better evidence of their concern for quality than the country’s long battle with the European Union over cocoa butter. “Since 2003, the EU permits chocolate to (contain a) certain percentage of vegetable oils, like palm, to substitute for the more expensive cocoa butter,” says Mario Piccialuti, director of AIDI, Italy’s confectioners association. “For us Italians, this is not ‘pure chocolate,’ but a chocolate-like substance, and should be labeled accordingly.”

According to one chocolate maker, “We Italians eat chocolate when we are happy, to celebrate, but we also eat it when we are sad, to cheer us up.”

Italy’s favorite chocolate candy flavor is gianduiotto, a creamy blend of chocolate and hazelnuts, and was invented in 1852 out of necessity. Due to the long Napoleonic Wars, the transport of cocoa beans across the Atlantic was severely curtailed, and Europe began to experience chocolate shortages. To extend their meager supplies of cocoa, Caffarel began blending ground hazelnuts into their cocoa. The result was a creamy, flavorful delight, and it became an instant success.

Shaped like an upside-down canoe, the candy’s name comes from Gianduja, a traditional carnival character popular in Turin. Gianduiotti wrapped in paper were given out by a masked Gianduja character at the 1865 carnival in Turin. This is the first time that any chocolate candy in the world was paper-wrapped.

Gianduiotti are not only popular in Italy. Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco selected them as their official wedding candy.

FIVE WAYS

Here are five chocolaty ways to savor Italian chocolates:

• Check sites like www.chocolitaly.com that list special tastings, events and chocolate shows such as the two-week Turin Chocolate Festival held in early March or Perugia’s Eurochocolate in October.

• Visit one of Italy’s chocolate factories like Perugina, makers of Baci.

• Take a chocolate-making class like the fun-filled ones given by Paul De Bondt in Pisa.

• Be on the lookout for chocolates that are hard to find at home, such as Ferraro’s Kinder Sorpresa, small chocolate eggs filled with puzzle pieces that assemble into a collectible toy, or its Pocket Coffee, little shots of real espresso coated in bittersweet chocolate.

• Enjoy a Michelangelo chocolate moment and treat yourself to one of Italy’s chocolate sculptures.

Italians craft gorgeous objects in chocolate, such as antique tools coated with cocoa “rust” and whimsical Easter eggs, which, depending on the intended recipient, are filled with either toys, jewelry or collectibles.

One chocolate shop in Pistoia will put custom items into chocolate Easter eggs.

Clients bring the gift to the shop — everything from an engagement ring to a cell phone and even a black lace nightie — and while they wait while it is encased in a chocolate egg.

ITALIAN STYLE

• Savor a square of chocolate after dinner before an espresso. Many Italians even melt the chocolate right in the cup.

• Try a tiny chocolate spoon. Stir your espresso with the spoon until the tip melts, then nibble the spoon’s handle as you drink the resulting luscious mocha brew.

• Pair dark chocolate with one of Italy’s fine spirits like a glass of Tosti’s Bracato, a sparkling red wine that is fruity, but not sweet.

TEN OF THE BEST

Amedei, www.amedei-us.com

Caffarel, send email to export@caffarel.com

De Bondt, www.debondtchocolate.com

Domori, www.Domori.com

Ferrero, www.Ferrero.com

Pernigotti, www.pernigotti.it

Perugina, www.perugina.it

Peyrano, www.peyrano.com

Slitti, www.Slitti.it

Venchi, www.venchi.it/it/home.php?lang=en

Italian chocolate nib Parmesan crisps

These crisps are delicious with a glass of wine or a cocktail before dinner.

1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoon chocolate nibs

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat.

Working in batches, sprinkle the Parmesan in a thin layer in circles about 2 inches in diameter in the skillet. Scatter the nibs over each circle.

Cook until light golden brown, about 3 minutes. With a spatula, carefully slide the Parmesan-nib round out of the pan and onto a serving plate.

Repeat the process until you’ve finished all the cheese and nibs. Makes 8 servings.

By Francine Segan

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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