Torino's greatest sight? Alessandro's chocolates

Updated: February 18, 2006, 1:52 PM ET
By Brian Church | Special to ESPN.com

Parents everywhere will understand Alessandro Dalmasso's dilemma: His daughter eats too much chocolate.

Owning a chocolate shop doesn't help.

"She eat a lot of chocolate, I can't stop it," Alessandro, interviewed at his famous cioccolateria in Avigliana, told ESPN.com's executive chocolate editor. (It's my birthday Saturday and I can give myself any title I like.)

Brian Church/ESPN.comHall of Chocolate great Alessandro Dalmasso in his shop near Torino

Alessandro's unofficial taster sure knows her mind. "Papa, good, no good," the two-year-old regularly informs Alessandro, 33, who sells and makes chocolate and pastries at his shop.

Torino 2006 is "a great opportunity ... All kinds of food are good in Piedmont," Alessandro said.

Piedmont -- the Olympic region including Torino and nearby Avigliana -- is chocolate-obsessed. If Einstein studied here, we'd all know what the "c" in his famous equation stood for. Torino has an annual chocolate festival while, for these Games, visitors can buy a ChocoPass. That will get you 10 "tastes" in 24 hours for $12; $15 goes in 48 hours or 5 days for $24.

Welcome to the Republic of Chocolate! Switzerland is a chocolate power, but lacks style in presentation, said Alessandro. The master chocolate-maker is also not keen on "industrial chocolate." That's the stuff you and me consume daily in vast quantities.

Alessandro is a former Italian cakes and buffet national champion, no less, with the trophy on display in his 10-year-old store. The Hall of Chocolate great has even been to a Las Vegas showdown, but lost it all on the white. This year, he travels to Phoenix for the World Team Pastry Championships, which will be shown live on PBS.

So why is Piedmont (Piemonte) so hot at chocolate? "The temperature of the climate is good for work, is good for eat," answered Alessandro, who says consuming chocolate in hot weather is "strange."

The gianduiotti is the region's specialist chocolate, containing world-class, yet local, hazelnuts. Alessandro estimated there are hundreds of chocolate shops across Piedmont thanks to tradition -- "I was born in the kitchen of my grandparents" who also made chocolate -- and influence from nearby France for whom "chocolate is a culture."

"Culture" is the right word. While Jefferson and Hamilton were debating a constitutional balance between rural rights and central authority, the good folks of Piedmont were discussing at what stage to mix the hazelnuts with the cocoa cream. Italy became independent in March 1861, a month before cannons were fired at Fort Sumter.

That's 1-0 to the cocoa cream boys.

It's been a busy week in the world of chocolate. Men flocked to Alessandro's shop to give their girlfriends chocolate on St. Valentine's Day. Better than flowers, according to Alessandro, who is totally unbiased on this subject.

But ditch the pick'n'mix, guys. "The man, he wants a lot of assortment, but the woman, I think prefer with chocolate with milk" said Alessandro. (This sexist pig think she prefers it melted -- my birthday, remember.)

I've left Alessandro's words exactly as they are because he was kind enough to speak in English and because you can usually understand him. That said, the English version of Alessandro's Web site (www.pasticceriadalmasso.it) is a dream come true for thin militants: "The chocolate from we used is only with cocoa butter without added fat people," one section reads.

They also do a marvellous "To Hatred" wedding cake. Look it up, under "Recurrences."

I realize Alessandro's is an honorable profession, when the gentle and funny man rarely smiles for my camera. He's representing chocolate, that's why. In one of my pictures, he's having difficulty holding up part of the glass display counter because I thought CHOCOLATIER DECAPITATED would make a great headline.

Full disclosure time: At the end of our interview, Alessandro gave me a box of chocolates made with his very own hands (the chocolates, not the box). In accordance with the ESPN.com "Code of Media Ethics," the chocolates will be auctioned to raise money for a local hospital in Torino.

After I've eaten them, that is.

Surprisingly -- OK, OK, he gave me an apricot marmalade chocolate almond cake, as well -- Alessandro is a choco-con. That's a chocolate conservative. The wrappers come off as I ask him if I can eat his babies for breakfast.

He's a bit shocked. "No, no, no. I think [chocolate] only in the evening, after dinner, 9 o'clock."

His chocolates sell for around $20 a pound, very reasonable compared to far more expensive brands in Torino itself. I would have bought some of these for a taste report, but I don't know Italian for "Can I have 0.000001 ounces of chocolate, please?"

Enough chocolate. My Olympic adventure continues. It's time for me to move house again, somewhere higher up the wild and lonely Piedmontese mountainside. Just me, Mother Nature and my apricot marmalade chocolate almond cake.

Brian Church is a columnist with the Athens News in Greece. He will be contributing to ESPN.com throughout the Olympics.