Chocolate on the House

Food Arts Magazine, October 2008
by Francine Segan

With inventive pairings and fetching presentations, Tuscan restaurants are upgrading the decades-old northern Italian practice of serving complimentary pieces of chocolate with espresso or after dinner drinks.

A commonly heard exchange between tourists and waiters in northern Italy goes something like this:

Waiter: "Espresso?"
Patron: "No, thank you."
Waiter: "No? But we serve it with a piece of chocolate, a specialty from this region of Italy."
Patron: "Ah, chocolate? Well in that case, yes, please!"

In Italy's northern Piedmont region, complimentary chocolate is routinely served with espresso. Resting on the saucer may be a simple small square of dark chocolate or a tiny multi-layered soft praline-cremino -or gianduiotto, Italy's best selling confections, a blend of finely ground hazelnuts and chocolate shaped like an inverted canoe. Many Italians melt the chocolate in their espressos, while some prefer to nibble while they drink.

"For us in Piedmont, chocolate has always been associated with elegance and refinement," muses Maria Costa, owner of the famed Café Al Bicerin in Turin. "Providing guests with a piece of chocolate at the end of a meal has been standard in our fine restaurants since the 18th century. Then, several years after World War II it became a popular practice in every bar, café, and trattoria as well," Ms. Costa explains.

Why isn't the delightful custom of chocolate and espresso better known?

Two reasons, really. One, Piedmont is one of Italy's lesser-known regions; and two, most foreigners visit Italy during the summer, when chocolate is not really in season.

Even native Italians from other regions are often unfamiliar with Piedmont's espresso-chocolate pairing. In fact, Dr. Mariella Maione, a native of Naples, was so delighted when she discovered the custom that she eventually bought a Piedmont-based chocolate company. "I moved to Turin back a dozen years ago, during one of its coldest winter," explains Dr. Maione, "so this small, unexpected gift of chocolate with my espresso warmed my Neapolitan body and reached me heart and soul. I felt so welcomed by this friendly gesture that I fell in love with both chocolate and Turin!" Dr. Maione now owns Peyrano Chocolates, one of Turin's finest chocolate manufacturers, founded at the turn of the last century.

A free piece of chocolate is intended mainly for seated bar and café patrons, but even those taking their espresso standing up receive some kind of treat in Northern Italy. For example, in Turin's charming Caffe Mulassano in the gorgeous Piazza Castello, every patron receives a free glass of cold water, (for which most bars routinely charge) and in Baratti & Milano Bar, an offering of a tiny something sweet is always available for espresso customers. Most bars sell chocolates for consumption on site and many have a large brandy snifter full of Baci-Perugina's chocolate kisses-for sale at a nominal cost. A customer buys one to give to his date or perhaps as a way to meet someone. "So much more charming to be handed a "kiss" than to be asked, 'Can I buy you a drink?' " says Linda Traversa, a Milan college sophomore.

Complimentary sweets are part of virtually every restaurant's service in Piedmont. "With every cup of espresso we serve not one, but three pieces of candy," explains Daniele Sacco, director of Turin's historic Ristorante del Cambio, whose patrons have included First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and opera star Luciano Pavarotti. "Our pastry chef makes a different assortment of flavors every few weeks," continues Mr. Sacco. "Today we are serving a white chocolate truffle, a dark chocolate coated almond, and a fresh raspberry gelatine."

While Piedmont may have begun the on-the-house chocolate tradition, Tuscany is bringing it to new heights. There are four Florentine establishments, whose pairings and presentation are especially noteworthy: Hemingway, Enoteca Pinchiorri, Villa San Michele, and the Four Seasons.

Hemingway, located in the San Ferdiano section of Florence, provides the uber chocolate experience. Owner Massimiliano Cantore bought Hemingway in 2004 and transformed it from a simple store that sold chocolate to a chocolate tasting oasis. His idea was simple. For just a little more than the usual price of a glass of wine or cup of coffee clients also receive an assortment of three different pieces of chocolates specially selected to pair with that beverage.

His menu offers nine different beverage and chocolate pairings, ranging from the more traditional grappa and coffee to the more unusual tea, rum, and beer combinations. Hemingway even boasts a triple combination tasting of ice-cream plus chocolates plus liqueur. "Chocolate can be served in hundreds and hundreds of different ways" beams Massimiliano, "I've only just begun!"

When asked about his modest pricing, Massimiliano replied, "I want to be full and busy all year, not just in the tourist season, so my prices must attract the locals. And it has worked. 80% of our customers are Florentines, not tourists. Hemingway is now a very lively place filled with savvy, sophisticated chocolate lovers." Since undertaking this initiative, Hemingway sales have increased 45%.

Coffee and chocolate pairing is Hemingway's specialty. "Except in the Piedmont region, we Italians do not usually eat chocolate with coffee," explains the handsome and exuberant proprietor, "but I personally adore those flavors together." Hemingway's offers chocolate from renowned Tuscan chocolate-maker Andrea Slitti with its coffee. "Our clients go wild for Slitti's delicious solid chocolate espresso spoon," explains Massimiliano, "they stir the tip into the coffee so it melts and then slowly eat the handle as they enjoy their mocha brew."

Hemingway's offers a choice of five different coffees prepared three different ways, including the charming but now almost obsolete Neapolitan, "flip-drip" method. "We serve the espresso pot right to the table," he explains, "When most Florentines see this traditional Neapolitan espresso pot, they ask what it is. I find that it makes a much richer, more interesting tasting espresso."

Massimiliano provides not only unique and inspired pairings, but also includes written tasting notes describing both the beverages and the chocolates. His comments are brief enough so that they do not bore or intimidate the novice, but informative enough for even a seasoned gourmet.

An altogether different chocolate experience is just a short walk away, over the Ponte Vecchio, near Piazza Santa Croce, at the extraordinary Enoteca Pinchiorri.

This three-star Michelin restaurant treats its guests to a complimentary assortment of chocolates presented in stunning fashion. The chocolates arrive, to gasps of approval, perched on glass shelves jutting out at right angles from a gleaming rectangular metal stand. The entire effect is a work of art, evocative of a futuristic fantasy skyscraper.

The candies, which Enoteca Pinchiorri makes on the premises, using chocolate from Andrea Slitti, are offered to patrons ordering espresso. "Chocolate is a wonderful anti-depressant," laughs Executive Chef Italo Bassi, " and coffee, too, is a stimulant, so these two together are marvelous!"

They are also presented when diners order after-dinner drinks. "One of our goals here at Enoteca Pinchiorri," explains their sommelier, Ivano Boso, "is to educate our clients on how to dine well. We like to help our patrons pair flavors with both their foods and spirits. We love to suggest after-dinner wines and spirits that go well with chocolates." Boso continues, "Many after- dinner dessert wines and spirits are a perfect balance to the intensity of chocolate. The alcohol helps clean the palate so that as you sip and nibble the flavors become even more harmonious and appealing."

The Enoteca Pinchiorri chocolate experience is not limited to the dining room alone. Pinchiorri provides a smoking area, which looks like an elegant 19th century drawing room from a Jane Austen novel, where guests are offered a wide range of cigars and a platter of dark chocolate medallions specially made with Slitti chocolate. "Both cigars and chocolates pair well with the more than 300 different digestivi in our collection, that includes over one hundred grappas, and many single malt Scotches, Cognacs, and Armagnacs," adds Boso.

Slightly out of town, in the nearby hills of Fiesole, breathtaking panoramic views of Florence accompany the chocolate at Villa San Michele, a converted 15th century monastery surrounded by lush gardens featuring a façade by Michelangelo.

Villa San Michele's guests are treated to confections made with chocolate from the award-winning Tuscan company, Amedei. Each order of espresso comes with a delicious assortment of tiny chocolates as well as a chocolate spoon made there at the Villa using Amedei's 70% bittersweet chocolate.

The Villa's chocolate experience extends to its turn-down service, which includes a small box of chocolates from Pernigotti, one of Piedmont's premiere chocolate companies.

Another extraordinary chocolate experience is back in the center of Florence, at the Four Seasons Hotel, which opened this past summer. This restored 15th century mansion nestled in an 11-acre garden features several astonishing chocolate experiences.

Executive Chef Vito Mollica explains, "The end of dinner is not an end, but actually a beginning. A new beginning to spark your curiosity, entices your taste buds, and opens a new world of flavors. We don't just offer our guests tea or coffee but provide specially selected chocolate assortments and pairings."
At Il Palagio, the Four Season's restaurant, candies and desserts are made with award-winning Amedei chocolates. The same confections are offered in The Winery, their delightfully intimate wine bar, which also offers many fine vintages by the glass; and in their Atrium Bar, located on the ground floor under a gorgeous skylight.

The Four Season's setting and ambiance with its historic vaulted frescoed ceilings, bas-reliefs, stuccoes, period chandeliers, and silk wallpapers provide a highly memorable chocolate experience. "The Four Seasons in Florence is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world; it is a living museum, but one with life and heart. And our chocolates certainly warm the heart," muses Chef Mollica.