Philadelphia has always been a chocolate town, the birthplace of Wilbur and Whitman's more than a century ago, home to handcrafted Shane's Candies since 1876. Its port unloads more cocoa beans (destined for Hershey, Mars and Barry-Callebaut) than any other in the country.
More recently, acclaimed indie chocolate makers have made their mark: John and Kira's and Miel in the city; Éclat in West Chester.
The boomlet hasn't ebbed during the economic downturn. Lately, boutique chocolatiers have been cropping up like corn in August:
In Center City, chef Marcie Turney, of Bindi and Lolita fame, has launched a chocolate brand in the rear of her Verde home store, mixing some spices from her Indian and Mexican restaurants with her sweets.
In a largely residential area of Bella Vista, Italian transplant Fabio Scarpelli is offering chocolates at Golosa to be enjoyed with wines and liquors, as they do in his home country.
Out in an unassuming surburban office park, Antoine Amrani, former pastry chef at Le Bec-Fin, is fulfilling his childhood dream with a chocolate factory and store bearing his name.
Internationally known Max Brenner - Chocolate by the Bald Man opened his second self-titled U.S. restaurant (the other is in New York City) with sweet and savory offerings like onion rings with dark chocolate ranch dressing, chocolate pizza, and a syringe of dark chocolate.
And Naked Chocolate, the city's first bona fide chocolate-centric cafe with decadent ganache cakes and sinfully rich sipping chocolate, opened two more stores last year, one near Rittenhouse Square, another near Penn, making a total of three in the city.
"Philadelphia is a real gourmet city," said Brenner, when asked why he decided to expand here.
While these new establishments have blossomed during a recession, that's not so extraordinary: Chocolate - like alcohol and cigarettes - is considered recession-proof. While other sectors of the economy falter, many chocolate companies predict 2009 sales gains of 3 to 6 percent over the previous year.
"Our chocolates are luxurious, yet very accessible," Amrani said. "They just make people feel good - and in this economic environment, people want to feel pampered, have fun, and share small pleasures."
Added Amrani's business partner, Fred Potok, "You can't afford the trip. You can't afford the $200 dinner. You can afford a piece of chocolate."
Even better, each of these high-end chocolatiers takes pride in different elements of the business.
While Amrani's are handmade without preservatives in a process that can take days, Scarpelli is proud to be the only local business importing Florentine chocolatier Andrea Bianchini.
Turney brings her chef's perspective - and unusual elements such as rosemary and tahini - to her candy, while Max Brenner says his chocolate is more traditional, "straightforward," and that his restaurants emphasize "the whole chocolate experience."
"Everyone is very different," Turney said. "It's great for the city, all these different things."
Turney's chocolate offerings - which are sold under the name Marcie Blaine - are displayed in an 8-foot-long glass case inside Verde on South 13th Street. Glass partitions allow patrons to see the chocolate being made.
"I'm a big believer in open kitchen for a restaurant," she said. "If people feel like they're part of it, that's a whole other element for people to love."
Among her innovative flavors: tie-ins to her restaurants, like a Lolita Margarita chocolate truffle made with Cuervo tequila, lime zest, and lime juice. And as in her restaurant cooking, the combinations really work, especially the Madras curry-dusted cashew clusters and the red chile and chocolate Marcona almonds. She's "feeling out" other flavors with her sweet-craving public, she said.
"We thought, 'Are people going to take to rosemary caramel?' And they did. They loved it," she said.
Amrani's factory and store could easily be missed, tucked on a side street in an area heavy with office complexes. But to miss it, as two women who stumbled upon it recently noted, would be a shame.
Amrani has attended to every detail: The chocolate is uniquely shaped and colored, the boxes are eye-catching and eco-friendly, the ingredients are fresh, including lavender from Provence provided by monks Amrani knows. And the taste is worth the effort, with silky-smooth texture and pure flavors.
"Like a perfectly ripe piece of fruit, my chocolates are meant to be eaten and enjoyed freshly made," he says, "not saved away in the pantry."
The factory is small, but visitors can watch chocolate being poured into molds or Amrani soaking cherries in Gran Marnier. Signature flavors include mouthwatering offerings such as coconut kaffir lime and cinnamon honey.
"All these things are connected together to result in what we like to call a 'superlative chocolate experience,' " Amrani said.
Golosa is understated, with minimalist decor, and is kept at a temperature that's fitting for summer but may be chilly in winter. (Maybe that's why the many hot chocolates, like Cioccolata Salata, spiced and salty chocolate, and Cioccolata al Peperoncino, chocolate and hot chili pepper, sell so well.)
The beautiful, individual chocolates, served on a slate platter, are filled with all kinds of ingredients, some rather untraditional, such as aged balsamic vinegar and Sichuan pepper. The results are delicious, each coating the mouth with rich chocolate, creating a lovely resonance with a glass of red wine.
The vibe is low-key, appealing to a late-night crowd that is encouraged to bring their own wines.
Scarpelli, who opens after 5 p.m. and offers a "Chocoholics' Happy Hour," said more chocolate-based businesses is a benefit, not unwanted competition.
"That other places are coming shows there is a market here," he said. "The competition puts chocolate in people's minds. Just because I go to one doesn't mean I won't or can't go to the other. I would want to go and try the others."
Max Brenner is Golosa's opposite - bold, attention-getting. The cocoa-colored tables and chairs make one think of, well, chocolate. The art is blocky and modern, and the distinctive logo and Brenner's name are sprinkled throughout.
Chocolate, or chocolate accessories, seem to be everywhere - a hot and cold chocolate bar on one wall, a store on another. The sweet smell invites visitors to come in and enjoy the full food and alcoholic beverage menu, which includes waffle fries sprinkled with chili and cocoa, warm chocolate truffle soup with crunchy chocolate wafer balls, and "illegal chocolate, chocolate, chocolate pancakes" made with 60 percent chocolate truffle cream.
The savory fare has been dodgy, with some ill-advised attempts at cocoa cuisine. But Max's sweet side is worth indulging, with fun and ever-inventive ways to consume decadently, from "hug mugs" filled with molten chocolate to iced granita shakes and even a plastic 50-milliliter syringe for a direct ganache injection.
"When people talk about chocolate, they're not talking about taste," Brenner said. "They're talking about many other things. . . . It's sensual. It's a childhood memory. It's fantasy. It's much more than just taste. People talk about it with such passion and dreams. . . . I feel when people go [to Max Brenner] they get to be their most romantic, most decadent, most fantastic, most childlike. It offers all aspects of chocolate."
Antoine Amrani, 550 Foundry Rd., East Norriton; 877-267-2644; www.aachocolates.com
Éclat, 24 S. High St.; West Chester; 610-692-5206; www.eclatchocolate.com.
Golosa, 806 S. Sixth St.; 215-925-1003; www.golosacafe.com.
John and Kira's, 800-747-4808; www.johnandkiras.com.
Marcie Blaine/Verde; 108 S. 13th St.; 215-546-8700; www.verdephiladelphia.com
Max Brenner, 1500 Walnut St.; 215-344-8150; www.maxbrenner.com
Miel Patisserie, 204 S. 17th St.; 215-731-9191, and 1990 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill; 856-424-6435
Naked Chocolate Cafe, three locations: 1317 Walnut St.; 3421 Walnut St.; 31 S. 18th St.; www.nakedchocolateonline.com.EndText
Makes 6 to 8 servings
For the vanilla cream:
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/2 cups milk, divided
1/2 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the hot chocolate:
1 cup of milk
7 ounces semisweet chocolate (2 chocolate bars)
1. Sprinkle the cornstarch over 1/2 cup of the milk in a small bowl and whisk to dissolve. Add the sugar and egg yolks and whisk well.
2. Bring the remaining 2 cups of the milk and the vanilla bean just to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over low heat. Remove the bean, scrape the vanilla seeds into the milk, and discard the bean. Gradually whisk the egg yolk mixture into the milk.
3. Cook, whisking often, until the sauce comes to a boil, about 3 minutes. If using vanilla extract, stir it in now. Strain through a wire sieve into a bowl.
4. After the vanilla cream is prepared, combine it with the chopped chocolate chunks and a cup of milk, brought just to a boil. Mix until smooth.
Note: Any flavor can be added - raspberry, cinnamon, holiday ginger spice, marshmallows. You can substitute milk or white chocolate for the semisweet chocolate.
Per serving (based on 8): 261 calories, 5 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 63 milligrams cholesterol, 46 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.