Tag Archives: hot chocolate

Mangia! Mangia! – Cioccolata Calda, the Best Florence has to Offer

Before the New Year’s diet resolution kicks in there was time for one last venture into the world of great hot chocolate in Florence. This time it was a paper cup of Grom’s Fondente with a moustache of whipped cream and a tall white ceramic cup of Catinari’s Fondente with only a silver spoon.

Deep dark chocolate from the best cocoa beans the world has to offer
Deep dark chocolate from the best cocoa beans the world has to offer

Of all the cioccolata calda in Florence, Catinari is the best in quality, quantity, presentation and experience. Vestri comes in second in taste, but the plastic cup is a flaw. Grom serves three interesting versions of high quality, but the paper cup and no place to sit are drawbacks. Rivoire has the old world ambience, but has let the quality slip and, though unlikely, it seems like the cups have gotten smaller.

Mangia! Mangia! has already discussed the hot chocolate of Vestri and Rivoire. The first week of a new year is perfect for measuring Grom against Catinari.

Roberto Cantinari – Father of Tuscan Chocolate

A life devoted to chocolate – Roberto Catinari, now in his mid 70s, is credited with inspiring Tuscany’s young chocolatiers, who gave birth to the “Chocolate Valley” that runs from Florence through Prato and Pistoia and on to Lucca and Pisa.

It is said that his love of chocolate began in Switzerland where the young Pistoian immigrant began work at seventeen as a dishwasher in a pastry shop. It was over ten years before he worked his way into the white coat of a pastry chef. He spent ten more years perfecting his craft.

Roberto Catinari has the perfect face of a master chocolate maker
Roberto Catinari has the perfect face of a master chocolate maker

In 1974, he returned to the mountains north of Pistoia and his mother’s house in the hamlet of Bardalone, to start a business with his wife. Six years later they moved to a more advantageous location in Agliana (between Pistoia and Prato) where the kitchen and shop continued until 2007 when he obtained a larger space nearby.

Catinari, with his flowing white beard, could be a chocolate wizard from a Harry Potter novel, but he looks at his work as a craft to be mastered. Over the past thirty years he has created a business where at first no one would pay for quality ingredients until today when chocolate-makers beg for a chance to spend time learning in his relatively small chocolate laboratory. He demands attention to detail, the best ingredients, and a passion for chocolate from all who work with him. Catinari keeps the facility small by choice – a way of valuing quality over quantity. His focus is on the value that hand-made attention to detail and the best raw ingredients bring to the final product.

The beautiful entrance to Catinari's Arte del Cioccolato
The beautiful entrance to Arte del Cioccolato

Except for the shop in Agliana, there is only one other Cantinari Arte del Cioccolato shop and that is in Florence, down a specially decorated little alley at the bottom of Via Porta Rossa where it meets Via Tornabuoni. It’s easy to miss. Here the attention to the main ingredient is readily apparent and drinking cioccolata calda is a special experience.

First, there is the walk down the short paved alley with decorative trees and huge flickering candles. The tiny shop is paneled in dark wood with glass cases full of meticulously decorated chocolate candies. Two comfortable seats are inside and outside, heaters keep the small tables warm even in winter. Arte del Cioccolato serves either Fondente (dark chocolate) or Al Latte (milk chocolate) flavors, both made with chocolate from São Tomé, the small island in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Africa. A large ceramic cup is filled just over half way with thick hot hot chocolate, placed on a saucer with a spoon. The spoon is useful for cooling the first sips and capturing the last bit coating the sides of the cup. None should be missed.

Grom – The Boys from Piedmonte Aim to Bring Gelato to the World

Grom, the upstart youngster, opened its doors in May 2003 in the center of Torino, and the success was immediate, unlike Alberto Cantinari’s experience driving around Tuscany for years, slowly building a fan base. At Grom, long lines formed in front of the store from the very first day and the two founding partners, Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom, planned for world-domination with their artisanal gelato.

Grom offers three flavors of hot chocolate
Grom has three great flavors

In January 2005, they decided to expand with the opening of new stores and invest in a centralized laboratory suitable to meet the production demand of the future. The goal was always the same: offering the very best. The centralization of the first phase of production (the mixing of raw materials) became a key decision allowing for a strict quality control standard. But most important, like Catinari, they wanted to assure the quality of the ingredients, for instance, by allowing only certain types of fruit available at local consortia, rather than at the wholesale fruit markets found in each city. The liquid mixtures produced in the laboratory, are checked by a team of experts and then distributed three times a week to each store, where they are blended daily to create incredible gelato. The same system is used for Grom’s cioccolata calda. This attention to quality and the right raw material is at the origin of what makes Grom famous throughout Italy and already many parts of the world (New York City, Paris, Osaka, Tokyo, and Malibu, so far).

Grom’s centralized laboratory also produces the excellent liquid chocolate served at each store as hot chocolate. Grom offers a choice of three flavors:  Bacio, Al Latte and Fondente.  All include fresh milk, dark chocolate of the best “crus” around the world (Al Latte uses Teyuna cocoa of Colombia, Bacio incorporates Tonda Gentile Trilobate hazelnuts and the Fondente starts with Ocumare chocolate from Venezuela), and a few drops of cream. There are no thickeners and the liquid chocolate is heated on the spot in each gelateria so as not to weakening the complex flavors of the great chocolates.

It’s true that it may not be fair to measure Grom, a gelateria, against three chocolate makers when weighing the merits of cioccolata calda in Florence. It didn’t come in first ,but it certainly was a credible competitor. Next winter, perhaps the hot chocolate at Café Giacosa and Café Florian will be on the list of challengers. But now, the New Year’s diet commences…

Grom – www.grom.it (in Florence) Via del Campanile at Via delle Oche – Ph. +39 055.216158. Open from 10:30am to 11:00pm

Roberto Catinari, www.robertocatinari.it,www.artedelcioccolato.it Arte del Cioccolato, Via Provinciale, 378; Agliana; +39-0574-718-506; (in Florence) Chiasso de Soldanieri, near the corner of Via Porta Rossa and Via Tornabuoni); +39-o55-217-136.
Open from 10:00am to 8:00pm

Mangia! Mangia! – Cioccolata Calda, Florentine Hot Chocolate

Winter is the season for hot chocolate, preferably with whipped cream. To me, the most perfect hot chocolate in the world was served at Café Angelina in Paris in 1977. (I tasted it again in 1996, but although it was still fabulous, it wasn’t perfect (that may have had something to do with the guy eating steak tartare, topped with a raw egg, at the next table).)

The perfect hot chocolate served your way at Cafe Angelina in Paris
The perfect hot chocolate served your way at Café Angelina in Paris

Hot chocolate at Café Angelina is an event. A polite uniformed waiter arrives with a silver tray. On the tray is a silver dessert spoon, a small china pitcher of hot aromatic chocolate, a bowl of barely sweetened whipped cream heaped high, and a small china cup. He offers a snowy white napkin and proceeds to pour a mere half a cup of thick hot chocolate – the aroma intensifies – the choice of how much whipped cream to add is left up to you.

Hot cocoa 1950's style
Hot cocoa 1950's style

During my childhood, hot chocolate was hot cocoa, which meant a packet of Swiss Miss mixed in hot water or on special occasions a spoonful of Hershey’s Cocoa mixed in hot milk or on very special occasions my mother would cook up a secret recipe of chocolate and milk in a pan on the stove and add marshmallows to the steaming cup of ambrosia.

Now I get my hot chocolate (cioccolata calda) fix in Florence. I have a choice of places. Probably the best cioccolata calda is created by Leonardo Vestri at the Vestri Chocolate Shop at Borgo degli Albizi 11r, but it is served in a plastic cup. This is more a place to go to get a premium hit of hot liquid gold to feed an addiction than an elegant place for a holiday chat with friends .

Rivoire has been famous for hot chocolate for decades
Rivoire has been famous for hot chocolate for decades

For a more formal hot chocolate experience, the most famous place in Florence is Rivoire. Here an efficient, but surly, waiter will plunk down on your table a small ceramic cup of incredibly good hot thick chocolate topped (your choice when ordering) with semi-sweet whipped cream. You will also get a couple of tiny paper napkins and a couple of unnecessary paper packets of sugar.

Hot chocolate with whipped cream at Rivoire
Hot chocolate with whipped cream at Rivoire

If you are sitting outside at Rivoire you will have a quintessential Florentine view of the Palazzo Vecchio, the statues of David and Neptune, and the passeggiata of a million Italian families mixed with a few Chinese tour groups.

Ciccolata Calda thick and rich at Rivoire
Ciccolata Calda thick and rich at Rivoire

If you are seated inside, you are warmer and may catch a sight of a regular client – a pretty English Bulldog dolled up in her winter fur collar. Ask her how she likes her hot chocolate — with or without whipped cream.

Styling bulldog at Rivoire
Styling bulldog at Rivoire

If you are sitting at a table at Rivoire sipping cioccolata calda you are paying a premium. Remember to sit at a table in Italy is to be “renting” the table, so you should plan to stay awhile to make the price of your hot chocolate worthwhile. Better idea – stand at the elegant bar at Rivoire and for a third the price you will get the same taste treat with equally abrupt service, minus the napkin scraps and sugar packets.

With whipped cream or without - just give me a taste!
With whipped cream or without - just give me a taste!

Tuscan Traveler is now on a mission to find the most luscious cioccolata calda in the best ambience for the proper price in Florence. If you have any ideas that would assist in the endeavor, please add a comment.

Not dressed for Rivoire
Not dressed for Rivoire

Mangia! Mangia! – Gelato and Hot Chocolate Together!

Does anyone else experience this seasonal change – a summer yen for gelato, but a winter chocolate craving? In Florence there is a small shop to visit all year long – Vestri Cioccolata (e Gelato). Leonardo Vestri has solved that problem of bridging the seasons with Affogato (Gelato “Drowned” in Hot Chocolate).

Vestri Chocolate-Covered Nuts
Vestri Chocolate-Covered Nuts

In the mid-1960s, Leonardo’s father Daniele, followed his own father into the artisanal chocolate world in the southern Tuscan town of Arezzo. Recently, Daniele went to the source to assure that he had the finest cocoa. He purchased a “finca”, a cocoa plantation in Puntacana, Dominican Republic. The dried beans are shipped to Arezzo for the final phases of toasting, refining and tempering.

Vestri is gaining a worldwide following for specialty chocolates – dark chocolate with hot peppers, Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici’s favorite chocolate, dark Caraibico with roasted chocolate nibs, dark, white and milk chocolate-covered hazelnuts and almonds, and chocolate-covered candied orange slices and peel. Stefania, Daniele’s wife, designs the eye-catching decorative chocolates, as well as the smart boxes, trendy logo and luscious web site.

Leonardo’s passion is gelato.  In 2002, he took off for Florence where he opened a Vestri family chocolate shop, but then installed a small gelato bar where sixteen special flavors are offered each day. Leonardo starts his morning at seven making each flavor from scratch, using fresh milk, cream, eggs, fruit, Vestri chocolate, liquors and spices. Fruit flavors are only offered when the fruit is in season – for October through December, Leonardo offers fresh fig, persimmon and chestnut gelato. His traditional Tuscan Buontalenti gelato includes fresh milk, mascarpone, sugar, egg, liquor (“secret”), a hint of fresh lemon peel, and a couple of secret spices. This gelato, named after Bernardo Buontalenti, a sixteenth-century Florentine architect, who may have been one of the world’s original ice-cream makers, is a local specialty.

Leonardo Vestri scoops his premium gelato
Leonardo Vestri scoops his premium gelato

Now that Florence has a gelato shop on every corner and more opening every week (thank you, Mr. Berlusconi, for relaxing the retailing laws), it is even more important to know what goes into making the gelato you buy (especially since even the smallest cone goes for $2.40). Just because the sign at the front door says “produzione propria”, “gelato artigianale” or (for the tourists) “home made”, that does not mean that the gelato served is made with anything but powder, water and artificial colors and flavor, or even that it is made on the premises – one central gelateria boasts the sign and then proudly tells its clients that the gelato is made in Novoli, a suburb of Florence.

Aficionados of Vestri’s gelato rave about the pistachio (“Wow!“), chocolate with pistachio (“a knockout!“), dark chocolate (“sublime!“) and “a total winner!“), the dark chocolate with hot chili (“gelato that bites back!“), and the white chocolate with wild strawberries (“ridiculously creamy!” and “pure and delicious!“) Vestri, as could be expected, specializes in chocolate gelato – classico or with an extra hint of flavor – cinnamon, chili, pistachio, mint, orange, lavender, sage, basil, Earl Grey tea, and coffee.

Affogato - Gelato "Drowned" in Hot Chocolate
Affogato - Gelato

All year long Leonardo is offering liquid chocolate in plastic shot glasses (small or large).  In the summer it is served cold.  In the winter it is heaven – hot, thick and rich. The cioccolata calda comes in two strengths – San Dominigo Cru (65%) and Venezuela Cru (75%). You can drink it straight or with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, bitter orange or hot chili mixed in. But when the gelato and hot chocolate craving hit at the same time, the Affogato is the way to go.  First Leonardo pours in the hot chocolate (at your desired strength) and then scoops in the gelato of your choice. The most decadent choice must be 75% Venezuela Cru with Stracciatella (chocolate chip) gelato – first there is the hot chocolate hit followed by a spoon of creamy vanilla with chocolate bits. And at the end a bite or two of dark hot chocolate with Vestri artisanal dark chocolate chips makes you love that the seasons change.

More Gelato Reading

Difference between ice cream and gelato by David Lebovitz

Best discussion about selecting the right gelateria by The Food Section

Best histories of Italian gelato by Dream of Italy and Divina Cucina

Great review of gelaterias thoughout Italy by A Life Worth Eating

In a class by itself – Ms. Adventures in Italy’s Tour del Gelato

Vestri Cioccolato e Gelato

Borgo degli Albizi, 11r, Florence

Via Romana, 161 B/C, Arezzo

Vestri Web Site