Lots of producers have marvelous stories to tell, stories that stretch back generations. Il Cioccolato is not, however, a family story, at least not in the literal sense. It’s a story of the ancient and the modern merging in surprising ways.
To get the lowdown we speak to Carmelo Grasso, who’s been the head of production at the business for a few years now.
The story of Il Cioccolato di Roma begins in 1880, when Trappist monks from the Netherlands came to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.
Il Cioccolato di Roma arrives in the Netherlands
As Carmelo tells it, “In 1880 the Pope, Leo XIII, called the Trappist monks to Rome to defend the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. The catacombs were being preyed upon not just by local graverobbers, but also by English explorers and archaeologists. The monks responded to the call, moving to Rome and bringing their skills with them.”
These skills were also productive; though we’re more used to thinking of the Trappist monks as brewers of beer. But they’ve also played an important role in the development of the modern chocolate industry. Carmelo explains: “They were really the times when chocolate was invented. Up until that time it had mainly been a drink, but around the middle of the 19th century a series of experiments, some more accidental than others, led to the production and consumption of solid chocolate.”
And so it was that Rome became one of the first places in the world to begin producing solid chocolate.
A journey through time
Il Cioccolato di Roma is in many ways like a trip through time. “The recipes, the flavors, the machines we use to make chocolate are all the same as 140 years ago.” With one important modification, albeit respectful of the monastic recipe: the starting ingredient. “The monks recommended using the best cacao available on the market. And nowadays we’re lucky to have access to trinitario cacao, which the monks didn’t have. That’s the only innovation we’ve made: the choice of a better cacao than the one the monks used.”
Trinitario cacao, Italian sugar, Tonde Gentile hazelnuts, vintage machines and long processing times… these are the ingredients that make the chocolate made by Il Cioccolato di Roma unique. “Each bar is different. It takes two days of work to finish each one, from mixing to refining, conching, tempering and molding, all the way to packaging.”
The packaging of bright colors recalls a floral, liberty style. The graphic design is another tool which links us to the rich history of the product.
In 1973 the Trappist monks sold their share in the business to the Rugghia family, who carried the company forward, keeping this precious heritage alive. But in the 2010s the owners, by now elderly and tired, were no longer able to run the company with the same energy: and it’s a job that requires a lot. So it was that in 2017, almost by accident, that the Rugghia family met Carmelo Grasso, who was working in international management.
Carmelo continues: “I wanted a change of career. And a friend brought me to visit this company, even though I had no experience in this sector. When I saw the chocolate factory, I fell in love. So I studied, and I continue to study, to make my contribution to this wonderful tradition, and to update it for our modern times.”
Il Cioccolato di Roma 2.0
Today Il Cioccolato di Roma is based in Fratocchie, in the Roman Castles, at the Abbazia Nostra Signora del Santissimo Sacramento. You can find their chocolate on sale at the company shop, in other abbeys and monasteries, in specialist shops and online.
The tradition is in good hands, and now even more accessible. As Carmelo concludes: “Before Covid-19 hit we received a lot of school trip visits. At one point the master chocolatier said to me, ‘Should I be a chocolatier or a teacher?’! It was wonderful to be able to share our history, to see children, even infants, gaze in wonder at the magic of the chocolate factory.”
Whenever it may that you’ll get a chance to taste Il Cioccolato di Roma for yourself, indulge! They have bars of 50, 70 and 90% cacao, milk chocolate and bars with hazelnuts, spreads, drinking chocolate, soft torrone and Easter eggs!
by Silvia Ceriani, email@example.com