Chocolate is a sublime experience. My brother-in-law Stevie has eaten chocolate all over the globe, and he will tell you, there is nothing like a superb piece of chocolate.
As an epicurious traveler, I’ve been drawn to Sicily for its romantic history, rumbly volcano, flinty wines and robust cuisine. Yet somehow, the wild isle’s chocolate has remained one of its best-kept secrets for me. Intrigued, I embark on my own chocolate tour — one deep, dark taste at a time.
I begin close to home here in Noto at Caffé Costanzo, a popular spot for coffee, cookies, pastry, or gelato, the best in town. My favorite Costanzo pairing is cioccolata and nocciolo or hazelnut. The flavors are soulmates and perfect for sharing — or not.
In the 1500s, Spanish rule introduced Sicilians to cacao and clever methods for rolling it smooth. The resulting xocoàtl paste was used to accent meats, grated over vegetables, or nibbled on its own as an aphrodisiac. Now, that I can understand.
We follow the fragrance of chocolate to Modica, an hour’s drive through the Sicilian countryside. Here, generations still use rolling pins of lava stone — from Mt. Etna, of course — to refine and smooth the chocolate. The mix is chilled before adding sugar to keep the crystals from melting, producing chocolate with a signature crunch.
In Modica we find the Museum of Chocolate plus several charming chocolate cafés and boutiques. And as one of eight Sicilian Baroque towns in the beautiful Val di Noto, Modica has enough cathedrals, piazzas and cobblestone streets for non-chocoholics.
Upon admission, the Museo offers each visitor a whole cocoa bean, dusty with cacao and maybe a little grubby. But surprise! the dry, deep proto-chocolate flavor is delicious.
While chewing your introductory bean, there are several sculptures in chocolate to see. Some are impressive; some are deconstructing — a risk with organics. There is a billboard-sized Marilyn Monroe, and a room-size chocolate relief map of Italy with helpful landmarks like the Coliseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa. Yes, much of it is pretty silly. But it’s fun and takes a mere 30 minutes for a reasonable fee of about €2.
The first shop we visit is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Modica’s earliest chocolatier. When Europe began to favor milk chocolate in the 1800s, the Bonajuto family continued making its signature dark chocolate, and are still going strong.We amble down Corso Umberto to Antica Dolceria Rizza, open since in 1930s. Their chocolates are flavored with exotic essences like fiery peperoncino, below, or citrus. We buy some for friends at home. Me, I doubt they’ll last that long.The venerable Caffe del’ Arte is famous for hot chocolate and classic Sicilian pastries like our favorite the venerable cannolo — with local pistachios, of course.Modica is as serious as Uncle Stevie about its beloved chocolate. Heck, when this part of Sicily was destroyed by the earthquake of 1693, the chocolate industry survived — a genuine chocolate miracle.
An annual festival called ChocoModica celebrates my two Sicilian loves: chocolate and Baroque architecture. Both are entirely yummy.
Old Family Recipe
And hey, if you can’t make it all the way to Sicily to sample the chocolate, here is a special Sicilian Chocolate Cake recipe from my friend, Daniela. It is delizioso, generous and feeds a lot of people — just like Daniela herself!
Sicilian Chocolate Cake
- 4 eggs
- 1-1/4 cups flour
- 1-1/4 cups sugar
- 8 oz. yogurt plain or coconut
- 6 T canola oil
- 3 T cocoa powder
- 1 t baking powder
- pinch of salt
Mix sugar and eggs, then add all the other ingredients. Put in 24 cm baking pan (Daniela uses a round fluted pan) for 45 minutes. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Like so many Sicilian desserts, it is not too sweet — it is just perfect!