For Chocoholics, Paradise Found

Times Staff Writer

The ink on the index cards is starting to fade. The tape that holds the cards to the wall is starting to yellow.

But the words on the cards -- oh, these are magic words, cherished words, secret words. These are old family recipes for nine flavors of gelato, the incredibly rich and impossibly delicious Italian ice cream.

In a cramped room at the back of her shop, Elena Zane whips sugar, milk, cream, nuts, spices, chocolate bits and chocolate pastes into those heavenly flavors. In the front of the shop, along with gelato, she sells handmade chocolate by the piece, an explosion of flavor in every bite.


As Zane eases a batch of gelato into the freezer, her 12-year-old son slipping in now and again for a taste and a smile, she wonders about travelers who drool over chocolate but skip over Italy.

“They know Belgium and they know France,” she said. “Nobody knows Turin is famous for chocolate.”

Let’s remedy that: Chocoholics, let the pilgrimage commence.

And a tip for the pilgrims: Start with the ChocoPass, one of the tastiest inventions known to man.

The ChocoPass is bliss in a coupon book, priced at 10 euros (about $12) for one day or 15 euros (about $18) for two days. The coupons entitle you to sample a house specialty at each of 23 Turin chocolate shops, and walking among them provides a tour of the distinctive plazas, museums, churches and passageways in a city older than the Roman Empire.

Although chocolate has been produced here for 500 years, mass production is frowned upon. So is milk chocolate, as much a culinary sin to Italians as Velveeta.

As she prepares another batch of gelato, Zane pours in hearty scoops of dark chocolate.

“This,” she says, “is the good chocolate.”

At Mamycao, Zane’s shop, the house specialties include chocolate accented with cinnamon. At Stratta, a historic store in Piazza San Carlo, chocolate might blend with ginger, or peppers.

At Peyrano, perhaps Turin’s most famous shop, a chocolate ball might be filled with grappa, the Italian liqueur. At Gerla, the fillings include pralines, oranges, rum and raisins.

The hot chocolate drink is incredibly, almost impossibly, thick. There is one size, small. Think sauce, not liquid.

The town’s traditional drink is bicerin, a blend of coffee, chocolate, milk and cream. The omnipresent treat is giandujotto, a gold-wrapped chocolate filled with gianduja, a hazelnut chocolate paste.

And then there is Cioccolato, the annual celebration of chocolate, so festive that one weekend is not enough. This year’s party extends from March 24 to April 2, with tasting and entertainment for all.

Back at Mamycao, the shop that she converted from a clinic when she abandoned optometry for a life of chocolate, Zane glances toward the recipes on the wall. As she starts another batch of gelato, she tells a story about them.

She could have sold the recipes two years ago, when a delegation of Chinese businessmen visited her store and asked how to make chocolate her way. She traveled to China and provided a crash course, but she refused to share the recipes, fearful that mass production would be inevitable in a country of 1.3 billion.

“They don’t have the artisanal production,” Zane says. “They are not used to making small things.”

She sells gelato in flavors she calls “the classics” -- dark chocolate, white chocolate, cinnamon chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachio, nuts, cream and gianduja. In the summer, when fresh fruit is readily available, she adds fruit flavors to the lineup.

Cookies and cream? Not here. She can produce a batch of gelato in 20 minutes, so she could pack her freezer with funky new flavors, but she won’t.

In the summer, customers line the street until 3 a.m., until the gelato is exhausted or the staff is exhausted.

She would be cheating those customers, she says, if she ever produced more than 12 flavors a day.

“After more,” she says, “you cannot produce great things.”