Although Italians typically love Gianduja more so than 'plain chocolate', and that they don't have much of a great history with chocolate as perhaps other European countries such as Spain, France and England does, it doesn't stop them making fantastic chocolate - although this seems to be concentrated to a few makers, and isn't as prevalent as other countries.
Surprisingly, there isn't actually a great deal written about the history of chocolate in Italy, there isn't even any index listing for the country in Grivetti and Shapiro's 946 page book on its History, Culture and Heritage. What we can deduce is that it was brought to the peninsula in the 17th century by the Marquis Carletti and it was suspected of being the instrument of death by the Jesuits to assassinate Pop Clement XIV in 1774(1).
Looking at today there are still some well-known chocolate makers/chocolatiers in the unified country such as Amedei, Domori, Dolceria Bonajuto, De Bondt, Guido Gobino, L 'Artigiano de Gardini, T'am, Slitti, Sabadi, Baratti & Milano, Bernardi and Urzi.
Our customers are likely to have already come across Amedei. Thee company is run by a brother and sister team of Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri who produce such wonderful chocolate from the factory in Pontedera near Pisa which they have been at for four decades. They were the first to bring Chuao chocolate to the masses and bucks the trend to produce single origin chocolate by offering a range of wonderful blends.
These chocolate makers may not offer their chocolate in packaging as instantly engaging as Amedei, but they do offer some wonderful chocolate, with their 100% being a personal favourite. From their Tuscan factory they offer a chocolate at a range of cocoa percentages which should be of particular interest to those wishing to explore the impact that sugar has on the flavour profile.
This small-scale chocolate making company is based in the lovely Sicilian city of Modica where they produce chocolate which has a more coarse, rustic texture which is a world away from the smooth luxuriousness produced by Amedei, but that it is not to say that its personality is any less beguiling.
In a similar vain to Amedei, Domori produce the most wonderful chocolate, including a bar made with donkey's milk and is a great place to start if you are looking to explore single origin chocolate from around the world.
Having a bit of time on my hands the other day I thought I'd go an poke around Selfridges' 'Chocolate Library' too see if they've got any makers I've never heard of before. One of them was this Italian one made by Urzi. There's not a great deal of information to determine Urzi's approach other than it is operated by Francis Montrone, based in the outskirts of Florence and they don't use Lecithin and apparently don't conche their chocolate and their describe it as 'artigianale' or 'craft' in English.
At first I wasn't too impressed with it. On reflection there is an endearing unpretentious quality to it. Despite being made with Sur del Lago cacao, there isn't the sense of the quality that the Rozsavolgyi Csokoládé Sur Del Lago 84% has, but it is pleasant enough. But at £7.49 a bar the price is very extreme.
Sabadi is an organic chocolate maker based in Modica that uses Nacional cacao from Ecuador and naturally produced cane sugar from Costa Rica and the Philippines - with both ingredients being Fair Trade. The bar I also purchased from Selfridges was the 50g Trapani Sea Salt with an 85% chocolate base. The texture is very much like Dolceria Bonajuto in that it is very granular with a noticeable acidic edge. Along with this was a faux-tasting floral edge that just didn't sit well with the natural chocolate taste and the salt was almost undetectable. Certainly at the 85% level and given that it is a specifically under-processed chocolate you should get a good hit of the natural acidity from cacao, but this just had a very strange flavour - which was almost like blue cheese. Also at £4.99 for 50g the price was also very high. Sabadi sell their own chocolate for €3.50 which works at about £2.89 so there is some decent mark-up there.
Baratti E Milano
This company seems to be a mix of a patisserie coffee bar, restaurant, ice cream shop, and bar and there seems to be no mention of bean to bar. From what I can gather they are more of a patisserie than anything. So the Selfridges price of £3.89 for a 75g bar seems, on the face of it at least, fairly reasonable. But, I feel the quality was lacking, despite being a 'grandi cru del cacao'. It was labelled as 'extra dark, intense and aromatic'. To me it resembled more of an almond croissant than anything. The aromatics weren't massively evident and the cacao fairly light on the acidity scale. Did very much like the almond notes and the texture, but it is not one that I could consume too much of.
Bernardi appears to be another confectioner as their website offers no indication that they actually make chocolate from the bean and this is further supported by the fact that they don't actually sell any bars (at the time of writing) on their own webshop. This 70% bar is fine in itself, in that it’s ok. There are no exquisite flavours as you would expect from the two principle chocolate makers in Italy: Amedei or Domori, or any of the uniqueness from Bonajuto or Slitti. The packaging has no mention of origin, but it does contain both soya lecithin and vanilla - the latter ingredient is often used to mask 'rough edges' in the flavour of chocolate and the former could be seen as a negative signal in terms of the craft of the actual chocolate maker.
For £4.99 I do think this chocolate is massively over-priced for the quality it offers.
Overall Italy has some wonderful chocolate makers. Selfridges does offer Domori and Amedei which are the two principle makers of fine chocolate in Italy, but if you tried the four other chocolates I've looked at above and featured in their 'Chocolate Library' and used them to define the quality of chocolate made in Italy then I think you would be getting the wrong impression of what is actually available from this Mediterranean country so renowned for their culinary skills and artistry.
Perhaps it is snobbish of me, and I'm not saying this because we sell many of the brands they feature in their 'library', but I had hoped and expected that their range would feature a greater range of 'bean-to-bar' chocolate, rather than remoulded couverture bars. They have some awesome chocolate there from the likes of Friis Holm, Marou, Akesson's, AMMA, Benoit Nihant, Beschle, Grenada, Menakao, Naive, Pacari, Rozsavolgyi, The Chocolate Tree and Wilkies, but their prices are eye-watering and there does seem to be a lot of 'filler' to ensure the A-Z approach is sufficiently covered. Although, there is the likelihood that their target audience will be tourists, and not particularly the same 'profile' as the lovely people that explore our range.
We will endeavour make this review of Italian chocolate as complete as possible and look outside of our own collection and that of Selfridges to explore chocolate from De Bondt, Guido Gobino, L'Artigiano de Gardini and T'am, but we do feel that across the eight Italian chocolate brands we do have a good idea of what Italy has to offer. If you think our review is incomplete or inaccurate, then please do let us know in the comments below or tweet us.