Category Archives: Chocolate

Stubborn September Summer

Good Gelato Goes Well With Anytime

Mid-september is when they start taking down the umbrella farms that cover the long sandy beaches that stretch up and down the Abruzzo coast. The crowds of people tempting skin cancer, like many of our fake-palm tree neighbors or hiding in the shade (me) are giving way leaving behind the few of us who insist on ignoring Fall home chores to keep their feet in the salty sand.

It’s dusk today and although the shadows are long the sun still seers, forcing me to turn my shirt-collar up. The waves are just strong enough to compete with the din of scattered card players getting in one last game of Burraco or Briscola before the games must be moved indoors until Spring.

I’m allergic to cards, so I have to fight against the coming Autumn my own way. The choice fell, of course, on the best gelato on this part of Pescara’s northern riviera.

Plinius has always been one of the neighborhood’s more consistent beachfront concessions and it’s seafood restaurant, unlike many in this tourist town, is open all year round. This year they teamed up with downtown Pescara’s upstart artisanal gelato and espresso bar “L’Altro Gelato e Caffe”. The mother store, in Piazza Salotto in the heart of the main evening passeggiata street and square (look up “Piazza della Rinascita”, the square’s official name, if checking on a map) goes out of its way to make tasty, rich gelato with local fruits, Sicilian almonds or pistachios or chocolate and vanilla from Madagascar. The coffee is arguably the best in town, although only one varietal at a time makes it the mile-or-so up the Adriatic coast to the Plunius.

Tell me then, who is enjoying this September Sunday evening more: my friends and family playing cards around the beach cot to my left; or me, with my feet in the cool sand as I gaze towards Dalmatia (too far away too see across the soft waves) and slowly savor Italian ice cream with ingredients from the Indian Ocean?

Or does it really matter?

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For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

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Convenient Comfort – Innocent Love in a Jar

A few thoughts for World Nutella Day

Everyone has their comfort food. I have friends who zero in on the nearest pint of Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Growing up in Wisconsin my consolation for being dragged out to cross-country ski during saturday morning cartoons was a cup or two of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

One of the problems with some comfort foods is get they are not always there when you need them. Good pizza and quality draft beer need the right restaurants or pubs, ice cream needs a fridge, and hot chocolate needs something to heat it up.

Good Chocolate, be it Swiss chocolate, boeri and gianduia chocolates from Piedmont, or your favorite fix can do the trick, but then you risk falling afoul of the dark versus milk-chocolate debate…and why choose one when you can have them both?

As American pop-culture foods like colas, colorful breakfast cereals, corn chips (crisps!) and McDonalds spreads across the globe, an Italian multinational has been quietly spreading its comforting paste the other way….like a tasty plague.

With Nutella, you don’t need anything tools or instruments to reduce depression whilst widening your waistline; if your fingers are clean not even a spoon is needed (and like chocolate-covered pretzels a little bit of salt makes it more savory).

And there are more benefits. It doesn’t melt like ice-cream but you can mix it with your favorite gelato (or even use it to correct the bad stuff), and if a stretch you can place a dollop in your steaming-hot espresso for a double pick-me-up.

But the best part of Nutella is that you can keep a jar hidden away for emergencies….like being snowed-in like we are today, or after an unpleasant Superbowl game.

Just reached for the jar…and a spoon!

February 5th is World Nutella Day (http://www.nutelladay.com/ )

Follow me on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/JoshuaLawrence

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

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Nutella Day was founded by the great people behind Bleeding Espresso

http://bleedingespresso.com/

and

Ms. Adventures in Italy

http://msadventuresinitaly.com/blog/

Drinking With the Enemy – Could Starbucks Make it in Italy?

Beware of Yanks Bearing Pastries (and Free Wi-fi)

Emily loves Starbucks, which is not easy for her because we live in a country without a single Starbucks: Italy.  She was 11 when she first tried a Mocha Frappuccino.  We were at the Louvre in Paris resting between visiting exhibits and the line was short so I grabbed their largest size, a Venti, and we passed it around the whole family.  It didnt seem like I was acting against my love of Italian coffee, because I wasn’t thinking of it as a coffee drink at all.  It was a light dessert drink (light because there were four of us).

Emily in Geneva (Starbucks?)

Starbucks has since become one of her minor fixations – and she forced us to take her to one in both Chicago and Geneva. Like many adolescent Italians she has her favorite bits of american popular culture and where in the 80s and 90’s she might have chosen Levi’s and McDonalds, she likes Abercombie & Fitch and Starbucks.

She was therefore quite let down when she found out that the advertising poster announcing the imminent arrival of a Starbucks store last week in Milan was just a prank by a design student (who, by his youtube video, seems to really want a Starbucks to come to Italy).  Thousands of Italians and Italy-lovers fell for the provocation, and virtually no-one had a mild opinion on it. What was also striking that a store that does not even exist in Italy is so well known – even hated or loved – here.

Emily in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Although Starbucks is inspired by Italian coffee culture, it is in essence an American model – from the sizes of the drinks to the recognizability of their stores throughout the world. Entering into one of their stores is however an experience light years away from what would happen most coffee joints in Rome or Milan.  The Italian relationship with coffee is different as defenders of true espressos and cappuccinos claim very different, and it has nothing to do with drinking out of disposable cups.  Most of it boils down to image and price.

But all need not be lost for the Seattle-based chain. If they do decide one day to break into Italy the price of failure for a company that says it draws inspiration from Italy would be high.  It can be done, if the corporation is willing to turn its business model on its head.

Sofia in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Three reasons why Starbucks would fail in Italy with its current model and two ways it could succeed.

Why it could fail: 

1) Cost. Not that Italians are cheap. At home or abroad they will go out of their well to spend a fortune on quality food and drink, especially if it familiar to them. But staple foods – pasta, olive oil, bread, coffee, and others are a more delicate matter. They will pay for high quality pasta made from the perfect mix of grains that is cut with bronze-edged tools and then slowly dried in the cool micro-climes found in the mountains in Abruzzo (De Cecco and others) or in the rising lands near Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking Naples that destroyed Pompei (Gragnano), but the everyday pasta found on every corner store also has to be excellent AND affordable. It’s the same with espresso and other traditional italian ways of drinking coffee – they will pay for the right mix of caffè bar real estate and selected beans, but even in the best parts of Rome an excellent espresso will rarely go over 1,10 a shot at the bar.

2) Size.  At most java shops in the US, not just at Starbucks, the small espressos are too big and watered out.  Of course it you are paying three to five times as much as they are used to back on the Boot, the temptation to get a lot bang for your buck is strong for Italians too.  Most Europeans, however, don’t binge their favorite poison.  (A glass of wine or a beer with lunch on a workday is still considered as normal as drinking water).

3) Simplicity.  Drinking coffee is an essential experience, a simple excuse for a break in the day to recharge both physically and mentally, either through a moment alone, or a quick pause to shoot the breeze with a friend or coworker. Not that there are not choices –  ceramic or glass, sweetened naturally, synthetically or bitter, a touch or milk, etc. – and they can speak volumes about a person.

I had a colleague who’s order – an caffè d’orzo (not really coffee but a roast barley coffee substitute), a small shot in a large cup with extra hot water, warm milk and unrefined sugar on the side… i would get a black unsweetened espresso (“caffé normale”) just to realign the heavens

It’s also usually a short experience (it’s called “espresso” for a reason), unless it’s one of those rare moments when you sit down and hang out with a friend for a while.  Coffee in Italy is simple and elegant, if not sweet.

Christmas edition cup

They could succeed by playing to their strengths:  the desserts and the ambiance.

1) Desserts.   Last time I was with Emily & Sofia in a Starbucks not far from Watertower place in Chicago I chatted with the barista (it was an off-peak hour on an August Saturday.  He confirmed my suspicion that most Italians that came through stayed away from  espresso, cappuccino, and their Starbucks derivatives.  They preferred normal brew coffee if caffeine was their goal. But the loved the pastries (muffins, banana-bread, cookies, scones) and sweeter milk-based concoctions (“Frappuccinos” and their ilk). The solution could be to turn the menu and the marketing upside down. Starbucks in Italy would be an up-market pastry-shop and gelateria that also sold international sandwiches and salads and milkshake-like drinks with coffee, if you really insist, to go with it.

2) Ambiance & comfort.  Although coffee is quick-fire experience, it is one of the few things they like doing in a hurry (driving is the other).  And despite their love for hanging out with friends and strangers there are surprisingly few places that offer a calm, relaxing environment with couches, free wi-fi, and big windows to the street in front of you.  And it goes well beyond hanging out and snacking. Just like the places where Starbucks is strong a working people are always on the lookout for good place to wait between business meetings or eve to hold them, and too many bars in Italy are just not comfortable enought.

Or cool.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

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Bad Crêpes and Beauties in Berets

Cheap on the Nutella leaves Paris crêpes a little flat.

When I was growing up Nutella was almost impossible to find the U.S.A, at least it had not yet arrived in the upper Midwest. The stories of Nutella that my friends who had spent time in Europe mad this mysterious chocolate paste seem larger than life.
Legend, fortunately, is often based on fact. And the fact is that this creamy paste made of blended sugar, chocolate powder, hazel nuts, vegetable oil and powdered milk is hard to resist. They sell it as breakfast food – advertised in Europe much as cornflakes are advertised in America – as part of a balanced breakfast for children and athletes. You can also find it in deserts, cakes, as a pizza topping and any other way you can imagine.

World Nutella Day (Feb )

Its versatility makes it all he more dangerous. Especially since all you really need is a spoon or, even better, your finger. The saltiness adds an earthy accent to it’s flavor (try it on salted crackers or a pretzel if you want, or any way your naughty little mind imagines). Late night snacking and a few more ounces of body fare are only a jar twist away – but at least you’ll sleep with contented grin.
Another legend back then was that the crêpes you bought in the streets of Paris were the best in the world. This might have been true in the 80’s, but this Summer my Nutella crêpe devouring daughters were not thrilled to discover that street vendors in Pescara, Rome or L’Aquila (even post-earthquake) make better Nutella crêpes than the dozen we tried all over Paris.

Emily in Paris (the Crepe Revolutionary)

There are two reasons for this. First, to save time very few of them will whip them up from batter to crêpe in front of you – they will try to throw a pre-made one on before you can protest (if they even have any fresh batter left). And half of the joy is the texture and crisp doughy warmth of a freshly formed and folded crêpe.
The other half is how much Nutella is used and how it is spread along the almost cooked crêpe. Of course purists would say that Nutella came after the legend – and they can be tasty with chocolate syrup, marmalade or just powdered sugar. But Nutella has a habit of nudging aside tradition and grabbing your attention.
Our street vendors in L’Aquila not only pour the mixture on the hot plate in front of you, adding to the wonder as the simplest ingredients evolve before you eyes, but they spread on the Nutella before the first fold so that there are more layers alternation from pastry to Nutella and back. In Paris the spreading only occurs when it is already folded in half. Only the vendor on the side of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés kept to the script on freshly poured, half moon crêpe building (but he was cheap on the Nutella).

Four wonderful sights

Fortunately there is much more to Paris than a loss of respect for visiting crêpe-eaters, so a few touristy purchases of berets and postcards or an improvised musical puppet show on the Metrò later and the disappointment would fade away.
Besides, there was a jar waiting for us when we got home.


February 5th is World Nutella Day (http://www.nutelladay.com/ )

Follow me on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/JoshuaLawrence

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

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I'm Louvreing it

See Naples, Eat Chocolate, and Die


What few people know Naples is famous for

The the names Gay and Odin seem more like a Broadway songwriting duo than a neapolitan culinary landmark, but within sight of Vesuvius the names are linked to some of the best chocolate you can find anywhere.
Chocolate Gelato in the Spaccanapoli
The first Gay – Odin shop I came upon is located around the corner form the Santa Chiara monastery along the Spaccanapoli, the historic street that slices the old part of this city in two. Gay – Odin has been renewing the art of chocolate making every day since. This year during the All Saints Holiday (the day after Halloween) Silvia, Sofia and Emily had come to Naples to explore with me and we had ventured off to the historical center to see if the creche markets around San Gregorio Armeno were already in full bloom. (They were.)

My mind was on getting to Scaturchio for coffee and a treat. We just had a nice lunch of Pasta alla Genovese (which in Naples is an onion sauce, not sweet basil) and I need both an espresso for the caffeine and maybe pastry (the usual baba or sfogliattella conundrum). We were almost there when Silvia and Emily made a detour, diving headfirst into the crowded little corner store.

They had found Gay – Odin.

The little shop, like many of Naples’s better chocolatiers or pastry shops is a feast for the eyes – from the art-deco sign and bars of chocolate with wrappers that reproduce their historic designs from the first half of the last century. Every little detail to remind you that this chocolate has been making mouths water in Naples for over 90 years.

Despite the autumn chill and pre-storm wind, most of the crowd was pressed up against the glass curve of the ice cream counter, and Silvia and Emily were in the thick of it (Sofia and I were waiting like sly hyenas out front. I was able to talk Silvia out of some of hers – an indescribable good dark chocolate and orange and dark chocolate and rum. Emily even let her older sister try some of hers – in part out of love, in part because she had also bought herself a handmade boero.

A boero is a dark chocolate ball around a chocolate mouse and liquid rum core. It is strongly suggested that you pop the whole thing in your mouth and don’t talk to anyone until it’s melted away or your risk dripping all over you shirt.

And as we pushed down the darkening street towards my espresso and San Gregorio Armeno’s manger statues, that is exactly what Emily did.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

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The Gay – Odin shop we visited in Via Benedetto Croce 61, Naples (Italian only): http://www.gayodin.it/punti_dettaglio.php?id=9

Semisweet Chocolate on Foodista

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