Long before Switzerland was on the “chocolate map,” Italy was the center of the chocolate universe! Today’s Postcards are dedicated to “Le Città del Cioccolato” – Torino, Perugia and Modica.
In 1585, the Turin-based Duke of Savoy married the daughter of Phillip II, the King of Spain. Raw cacao began to arrive in Genoa, Italy from the Spanish colonies in the New World, and nearby Torino’s expertise in chocolate flourished, turning the city into the chocolate capital of Europe. Today the handsome city, with its elegant cafes and confectionary shops, remains synonymous with chocolate, and its residents remain ever-passionate connoisseurs.
There’s chocolate, and then there’s Torino’s gianduiotto chocolate. An ancestor of Nutella, this melt-in-the-mouth confection is made of a rich paste of fine cocoa mixed with the premium hazelnuts from Piedmont’s Langhe region. The name gianduiotto was derived from carnival figure Gianduja, a jolly wine-loving peasant who embodied the epicurean nature of the locals. Gianduiotto is far more than just delicious chocolate, for the character associated with it has become a symbol of Torino and a key part of its identity.
Another Torino innovation is the original hot chocolate conceived there in 1678 and known as the Bicerin – an indulgent combination of hot coffee, cacao and cream. Between visits to elegant chocolate shops and cafés visitors can sample the city’s rich and varied cultural offerings. Highlights include . . .Palazzo Reale, the stunning palace of the House of Savoy, the nearby Chapel of the Holy Shroud and the National Museum of Cinema, housed in the iconic Mole Antonelliana tower. Plus, a BIG surprise . . . second only to the museum in Cairo, the world’s most extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities – the Museo Egizio. And, of course, Torino is the gateway city to the Piedmont region – the land of Barolo and truffles!
Heading south, we arrive in Umbria and the charming medieval city of Perugia, world famous for its Perugina chocolate confections and the beloved Baci. Which came first … the Hershey Kiss or Baci??? (Find out at my February 10th event)
Perugia hosts the world’s largest chocolate festival, a 10-day extravaganza held each October, which takes over the entire historical center of the city. Beyond myriad sampling opportunities (YUM), the festival is replete with life-size chocolate sculptures! And if you haven’t had enough chocolate, you can further immerse yourself by visiting Perugina’s historic museum, Casa Del Cioccolato, its factory, and even attend a hands-on workshop at their Scuola del Cioccolato. You can even in even stay in the city’s one-of-a-kind Chocohotel.
Heading further south, we arrive in one of Sicily’s Baroque jewels – Modica – a city renowned not just for its architecture but its unique “cold pressed chocolate.” The Spanish had conquered Sicily during the period of Spanish exploration to the New World. The Sicilians would adopt the Aztec method for using cacao, which is the style in which Modica’s chocolate is still made today. Modica, which has been winning awards internationally for over a century, sticks to the very simple recipe of hand-ground cocoa beans and sugar. E basta. That’s it. This allows for the quality and flavor of the cocoa bean itself to shine, with no additives or emulsifiers.
A Mexican stone called the metate is used to grind the cocoa beans which are then mixed with sugar and only gently warmed so the sugar doesn’t melt; this preserves the flavors and the nutrients and antioxidants of the cacao far better than modern processing methods. It also leaves the texture granular and crumbly, so you get that sugar crunch when you bite into it. There are various popular flavors the Sicilians add to their chocolate: pistachios and almonds, cinnamon and cardamom, citrus zest, peperoncino (chile pepper), black and white pepper, and sea salt, mint and jasmine. WOW!
The most famous arbiters of this taste experience are the owners of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, a tiny chocolate shop tucked into a side alley off of the main drag in Modica. Established in 1880, and it is the oldest chocolate shop in Sicily. But you can find great Modica chocolate in almost any shop in town, as well as in many specialty shops all around the island.
Buona Festa del Ringraziamento!
On this day of thanks, and especially after two pandemic Thanksgivings, I thought it would be fun to give a “grazie mille” for some of the many, many ways Italy and the spirit of la dolce vita make our lives sweeter.
We’ll start with some foodie gratitude, as doubtless many of us have food on our minds! We begin with pizza, with its humble Neapolitan cucina povera roots—the “crust” first served as an improvised oven thermometer, and to prevent waste it was “repurposed” as a carrier for whatever leftovers might be available. Today “pizza” is the #1 word in the Italian language understood by everyone, everywhere!
Not to mention mozzarella di bufala, burrata, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, taleggio, gorgonzola, and the list goes on … Plus savory salumi with their many sensory, stimulating variations … As well as endless varieties of pastas and sauces, and saltimbocca and ossobuco. Let’s give thanks for the sweetness of figs, fragrant blood oranges and the world’s most heavenly lemons . . . and limoncello and granita limone . And, lest we not forget: GELATO! … and the incomparable cannoli … YUM!
Let’s also praise Italy’s chocolate cities: Torino, home of Nutella; Perugia, home of Baci; and the Sicilian city of Modica with its distinctively textured cold-pressed chocolate bars made in the style of the ancients—but in this case, the Aztecs!
Shifting gears … let’s be grateful for the grace of the roman arch, Palladian windows, and so much other timeless architecture. As well as our sense of time itself—our calendar and especially the blissful summer months of July and August, named respectively for Julius Caesar and Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus.
For Rome, the Eternal City … for Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance … for Leonardo, for Michelangelo, for Raphael, and for the world’s most recognized and beloved art treasures. And, for so many charming medieval hill towns and vineyard-covered hillsides, plus over 5,000 miles of stunning coastline. For La Serenissima, the most magical and improbable of cities and for the rhythmic lapping of her canals and the romance of the gondola …
For the world’s most mellifluous language—musical and sexy, everything just sounds better in Italian … what else would you expect from the language created by Dante, the world’s greatest poet?!
For the language of music and the creation of opera, the piano and the violin … For Vivaldi and Verdi … and for Volare!
For the Ferrari and the Vespa … and for an unfailing sense of style and la bella figura … and sprezzatura!
For the fun and frivolity of the zanni (clowns) of the Commedia dell’ Arte, including the engagingly transgressive Arlecchino … and for Fellini and Roberto Benigni!
But most of all, for the spirit of resilience and joy that speaks to the “inner Italian” within all of us. SAlute and Viva l’Italia!
Finally a special grazie mille to those who have contributed to and enriched Postcards from the Boot over these past 4 years—Deborah Baldini and Biordi Art Imports, Kathleen Gonzalez, Karen La Rosa, Danielle Oteri, Anita Sanseverino, Allison Scolo, and especially, Frank Yantorno who is a phenomenal photographer, artist and Ciclismo Classico cycling guide extraordinaire. And, above all, to ALL of YOU readers for your support and encouragement.
Few countries can boast having ever had a “Golden Age” while Italy is the only country to have experienced not just one or even two but three golden ages!
Two thousand years ago Rome created an empire that dominated the Western world for an unprecedented four centuries. It was a triumph of engineering, artistic and organizational genius.Roman engineering genius gave us the longest-lasting monuments and buildings—as well as bridges, paved roads, aqueducts and cities—from antiquity, all of which created a sense of local community and inclusion in their time. Arenas like the Colosseum regularly hosted public entertainments that were impressive even by today’s standards.
Rome’s great legacy would help inspire Italy’s second Golden Age: the Renaissance, that 250-year creative flowering and intellectual transformation which began in 15th century Florence. Like classical Rome, the Italian Renaissance would spawn timeless artistic treasures and scientific advances. It would also celebrate human agency, an impulse that informs our modern sense of ourselves.
Italy is once again experiencing a Golden Age … though one of an entirely different nature. It’s one that celebrates the good life—La Dolce Vita—in all aspects of beauty and pleasure.
Following World War II, movies like Roman Holiday and gorgeous women like Sophia Loren (not to mention their ubiquitous leading man, Marcello Mastroianni) established Italy as the ultimate destination for romance, soon supplanting Paris as the epicenter of love.
Italy perennially ranks numero uno as people’s most desired place to visit and it’s now synonymous with fashion and design. And, no surprise, Italian cuisine ranks as the world’s most popular! The most important international modern art extravaganza—the Biennial—began in Venice. So did the world’s first film festival.
Today Italy is the world’s undisputed Lifestyle Superpower.