In a recent tour through Italy, I took the time to investigate chocolatiers and chocolate items where possible. I came away with plenty of impressions. Most of my time was in Florence and Rome. Some thoughts, in no particular order:
Ice cream: Chocolate ice cream is always difficult, and the test of any producer. I tried perhaps too many to list. Vivoli in Florence gets a lot of nods overall, and their chocolate (I got the “intense” version) was encouraging. Excellent chocolate flavour: it seems to me like Valrhona Guanaja) although texture isn’t perfectly smooth – a feature, it would seem, of Florentine ice cream. Best by far though was Rome’s Giolitti. With some it seems to have a fading reputation but I wonder how much of this is due to the decidedly surly service? The chocolate ice cream (again, it’s important to get the dark version, not the “regular” chocolate which obviously on visual inspection is a mild flavour designed for those uninterested in a maximum chocolate experience) is the best I’ve had by any standard, with rich and powerful chocolate flavour coupled with perfect smooth texture, the ideal combination that stakes out exactly how a chocolate ice cream should be. I must also list the biggest disappointment: San Crispino, which despite a sparkling reputation in Rome I found to be uninspiring: tasting of slightly sour milk and with little chocolate impact. I even tried on a later visit a different flavour (hazelnut), thinking I must be mistaken on overall impression: perhaps it was only the chocolate that wasn’t up to par – but this too was disappointing and lacking in flavour. There is a school of thought that posits that flavoured ice creams should have only mild flavour – that you should be able to taste the specific qualities of the cream – I disagree with this. IMHO a flavoured ice cream, particularly chocolate, should convey the essence of its flavour. With respect I argue that the former school is really in essence saying that the only truly worth ice cream flavour is fior di latte – but if that’s the case why even bother with flavoured ice cream at all?
Back to chocolate. Hot chocolate is something of a Florentine specialty. I went to Rivoire, Hemingway, and Vestri. The guidebooks are right: Rivoire is the clear winner. Their hot chocolate is not just definitive, it exceeded even my own expectations of what was achievable in a hot chocolate. Disregard the touristiness: this truly is a place worth visiting. It must be said though that the rest of their chocolates are simply ordinary. Surprisingly, the same can be said in the main of Hemingway, in spite of a direct link with Slitti, whose chocolates had lovely visual appeal but flavour-wise were sweet and generally uninteresting. Vestri is the easy winner here. Are they bean-to-bar as they imply? I tried 3 different origin chocolates (possible reviews to follow), all quite good, however, the Madagascar had both a suspicious 64% strength and an even-more-suspicious near-clonal similarity with Manjari. If they’re using Valrhona this is surely not dishonourable – but more authoritative labelling would be nice. I find it ironic though that in what might arguably be the epicentre of Italian chocolate many of the producers are obviously or probably using Valrhona – where’s the Amedei or Slitti (Hemingway excepted)? A little more local pride people!
Rome doesn’t have the same density of chocolate shops – but here you find Domori, Amedei, etc. everywhere. One good source for chocolate (and coffee, too) is Sant’ Eustachio, (adjacent to the Pantheon) mostly a first-rate coffee bar but they have the chocolates to match and have a well-chosen, mostly Italian lineup showing both commitment to excellence and regional pride. I worry though about conditions in the summer – the shop is open: how does the chocolate fare? I picked up some new Domoris here which were undamaged but sufficiently new that they might have been this autumn’s shipment.
A while back Martin lamented the difficulties in finding a chocolate spread without vegetable fats. Delightfully, (and perhaps after reading the blog?) both Slitti and Cuba Venchi have risen to the challenge. That actually deserves a separate post, I feel, and besides, this one’s long enough…