Coffee in Italy is consumed in enormous quantities (one tiny cup at a time) year-round. But when the weather starts to turn a bit crisper, there’s a sweet beverage that can serve as dessert as much as a drink. In fact, cioccolata calda, Italian hot chocolate, can sometimes be almost impossible to drink without the aid of a spoon.
The first time I went to Italy in the autumn, I heard “hot chocolate” and thought of the stuff I’d become accustomed to at home – foil packets of powdered chocolate dumped into a cup with boiling water. Inevitably, you’ll put too much water into the mug and end up with a muddy cup of what might pass for chocolate flavor if an alien landed in your kitchen and had never tasted chocolate before. In other words, I wasn’t too keen on trying hot chocolate, even if it was Italian.
Oh, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hot chocolate in Italy often has an almost pudding-like texture – lightweight espresso spooons sometimes even stand upright in the cup. Instead of water and powder, it’s made with real pieces of chocolate, sugar, and milk. It’s melted in special machines that mix the chocolate constantly to avoid burning and lumps. It’s also called “European drinking chocolate,” because other countries have similar concoctions, too. And if you’re even remotely a chocolate person who’s visiting Italy when the weather is chilly, you owe it to yourself to seek out a good cioccolata calda.
One particularly famous cioccolata calda (pronounced cho|ko|LAH|tah KAHL|dah) is in Florence at the Rivoire cafe-bar on Piazza della Signoria. It’s on the expensive side – especially if you decide to sit down rather than standing at the bar – but it’s one of those little indulgences that’s kind of gorgeous when you’re on vacation. Rivoire is also known for its chocolate candies and cakes, just in case you need a break from having gelato for dessert every day. At Rivoire – and most other places where you can get cioccolata calda – you’ll have the option of making the experience even more decadent with a topping of whipped cream. Just ask for yours “con panna.”
Unlike gelato, which is available all year no matter what the weather is like, cioccolata calda machines only come out when the weather turns cool. This is one of the small rewards people who visit Italy in the shoulder seasons or the winter can enjoy (along with lower prices and smaller crowds, but I digress).
I’ll have gelato a couple times a day even in the winter in Italy, I’m so enamored with the stuff. But there’s no denying the warming properties of a thick chocolate drink, coating as it goes down, on a cold winter day. Sure, cioccolata calda is a treat. It’s also a necessary barrier against the chill. And you can totally use that excuse for ordering it every day.
Want to try your hand at making this at home? Here’s Paula’s recipe for Italian hot chocolate.