Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Italians do it better

It was 1987, Madonna had short, peroxide blond hair and she was telling her Dad in song and dance that her poor but fantastic boyfriend, the one her widower-father-who-raised-her-by-himself had warned her all about, had gotten her pregnant. You of course remember her t-shirt (if you don't or were not even born in the fabulous Eighties, I will pretend I am not at all jealous and checking my  crow's feet right this minute and suggest you watch the link above for some real pop culture history) and how it boosted Italians' reputation worldwide. Now of course I could confirm or deny this statement since I happen to be married to an Italian, but I am a lady and this is a food blog, so I will abstain from this kind of information.

I can however vouch that when it comes to making a cup of hot chocolate, Italians do do it better.

But I must digress and explain a few things.

First of all, in Italy you go to a bar to have hot chocolate. An Italian bar being a very different concept than a bar pretty much anywhere else in the world. It certainly serves all sorts of alcoholic beverages, but it is first and foremost a coffee sanctuary, the place where the average Italian has his/her breakfast, traditionally a coffee with a brioche (an Italianized version of a croissant). But don't think for a second you can go in and just order a coffee. This action requires expertise. The coffee can be anything from a caffé espressoristretto (a concentrated espresso for those who do not like watery and weak espresso, hah!), lungo (a watered down version of espresso for those who don't like strong and creamy espresso), decaffeinato, americano (a large cup of black coffee, just like those Americans are always drinking in movies),  macchiato (an espresso with a small drop of frothy milk), marocchino (a sort of miniature cappuccino in a small cup with a sprinkle of unsweetened cocoa powder beneath the frothy milk and another on top), corretto (for those who need a shot of grappa/acquavite in their coffee to get going), d'orzo (barley coffee, for healthnuts and people with gastiritis or other ailments who just cannot kick the habit), cappucino, cappucino decaffeinato, shakerato (the Italian version of ice coffee, an espresso shaken with sugar and often a dash of coffee liquer served in a martini glass) or a latte macchiato (a large glass of warm frothy milk with an espresso into it). While I am doing this, I will go as far as to tell you that if you are Italian, you never order cappucino after 12pm (unless you are having a late breakfast after a night out on the town) and you do not sprinkle cinnamon (cocoa powder is allowed) or put whipped cream on your cappucino .

A bar is a place of aggregation and social interaction in towns and neighborhoods all over the country. More often than not there is a table of old pensioners in coppolas playing cards with a sigarette dangling from the side of their mouths and a glass of wine nearby. Next to them is a table of women having a quick chat and a coffee or a group of guys and girls having an aperitivo before lunch or dinner, accompanied by bowls of olives, chips, nuts and bite size sandwiches. During happy hour in Milan (and now in several other places too) you can literally have a whole meal for the price of a drink, with an endless buffet stretching down the counter. A bar is where people usually eat a quick salad or sandwich during their lunch break, where they can usually buy cigarettes and stamps and Lotto or scratch cards and where kids have an ample choice of candy and ice cream.

But back to hot chocolate. As soon as the weather turns nippy, especially in the mountains, cioccolata calda is a favorite choice among both children and adults. You can order it with or without panna (whipped cream) and it comes with a spoon. If you want to mix in with the crowd and not stand out as a tourist, you will not use your spoon for sugar (Italian hot chocolate is usually already sweetened). You will use it to eat your hot chocolate. And no, that is not a mistake. You eat it. Cioccolata calda is not a hot, milky beverage you sip and warm your hands on with little islands of marshmallows floating on the surface. Italian hot chocolate is thick, creamy and dark. No milk chocolate nonsense here. You eat it and drink it (it is scortching hot when served, so watch out) and every spoonful is bliss. 

This beverage can easily be made at home despite tradition. For those of you living in Italy, don't buy the instant sachet, as making it from scratch is instant too (with the added bonus of deciding how much sugar you want and the quality of the ingredients to use).

My daughter and I made this yesterday evening and, as you can see in the pictures, she did most of the job. It is that easy.

Ingredients (for 1 large cup)
2 tbsp good quality cocoa powder
2 tbsp sugar (or less or more, we used a little less)
1 large cup (250ml) of milk
1 tbsp flour or potato starch (we used the latter)

Whisk together all the dry ingredients in a sauce pan and then add in the milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When it thickens it is ready. Drink immediately.


  1. Looks like your daughter did a wonderful job! What a treat.

  2. LOL I loved this opening paragraph. Now I had no idea that Italians did hot chocolate better! :P

  3. all sounds so civilized. I want to "eat" this drink tonight after dinner! What a fabulously, simple, decadent treat!

    Once again, thanks for sharing the culture and for this fantastic recipe!

  4. Judging from that decadent hot chocolate so thick that you need a spoon to eat it....Italians must do everything better!

    Can't wait to make this recipe with my sons this weekend. Your little helper is adorable and your blog is awesome.

  5. I wish I had read this post decades ago when I was in Venice with my mother in a cold January and was going through the city and wondering why Italians dran k at bars standing up and what did they order? anyway, that was then!
    I love that chocolate drink and the fact that you used an excellent cacao! (I like Droste too)

  6. Oh I love it! Im making this for my son tonight.I came across your site from the foodieblogroll and I'd love to guide Foodista readers to your site. I hope you could add this Foodista widget at the end of this post so we could add you in our list of food bloggers who blogged about hot chocolate, Thanks!

  7. MyKintheR - She had fun and enjoyed the result immensely, as you can tell ;o)
    Lorraine - you must be an '80's gal!
    DW&D - listen, if you use skim milk and cut back on the sugar it is decadent but not very fattening treat. Glad you enjoy the snippets of life here.
    Kelly - Italians are remarkably good at the the things they do well, let's put it that way.
    tasteofbeirut - I may have walked right by you and we will never know! I enjoy to sit at a bar, but having a coffee is their version of fast food...
    Alisa - I will look into it, thanks. Hope your son enjoys.

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  9. I have heard about this drink/wonderfulness! I can't imagine anything more fun and delicious - I may never be happy with my Ghiradelli powder again!

  10. UrMomCooks - We don't get Ghirardelli over here, but they must make unsweetened cocoa powder! That way you can get the best of both worlds ;o)

  11. That's a fantastic description of Italian bars and the different types of coffees you can order there. Viennese coffee houses offer a similarly bewildering choice of coffees, and I always feel bad for tourists who just want a "cup of coffee". Love your hot chocolate recipe. Looks like your daughter loves it too! :-)

  12. Karen - Thanks for the info about coffee in Vienna, I had no idea, The next time I come that way (it has been a while, too long) I will ask you for advice.

  13. I had missed this post! You perfectly described the Italian bar and the habits of the Italians around coffee. And thanks for sharing your recipe for Italian hot chocolate! It looks amazing.


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