"Nine out of ten people say they love chocolate. The tenth is lying," said Guido Gobino, 47, in his lab in Turin, northwestern Italy, as automated machinery stamped and wrapped his Tourinot chocolates in silver foil.
Made only with cocoa, sugar, vanilla and hazelnuts, they melt on the tongue, releasing a bouquet of chocolate velvet.
High-end chocolatiers like Gobino are making the most of mounting global appetites for gourmet chocolate, and leading a rise in demand for Italian-made brands.
Not widely associated with chocolate, the Italians nonetheless have won top prizes and claim a long history in the indulgence, saying they even taught the Swiss some core skills.
Worldwide gourmet chocolate sales should reach $1.62 billion in 2008, consultant Judith Ganes-Chase said last month. And Italian consumption has doubled in the last decade to 4.5 kg per head, though it still lags the European average of 7.5 kg.
"Chocolate exploded in the last year," said Davide Pogliani, who has added a room just to sell chocolates in his fine wine and food store in Milan. "We sell mostly Amedei – considered the best in the world – and Gobino."
Based in Pontedera, near Pisa, Amedei won a gold medal for best in the world in 2005 and 2006 from London's Academy of Chocolate.
Cecilia Tessieri, 39, and her brother Alessio, 42, who founded Amedei in 1989, took their search for the best ingredients to the ultimate conclusion and are the only Italian chocolatiers who run their own cocoa plantation in Venezuela.
"A good chocolate, like a good wine, starts from the vine," Cecilia Tessieri said.
Italian chocolatiers have seen their exports rise 500% in the last five years as they added clients like chef Ferran Adria of famed El Bullin restaurant in Spain, and Fortnum and Masons, London's 300-year-old fine food emporium.
Gobino and Amedei are emerging because they meet demand for high-quality, organic products.
Gobino does not use any preservatives or artificial colors. For example, he makes white chocolate by removing the fiber from the cocoa, which is what gives it its dark color, and adding only cocoa butter, milk and sugar.
Also, he uses only Piedmont hazelnuts – far costlier than the more common Turkish ones – because they are 60% fat, which makes them creamier.
Choosing the best ingredients is not cheap. A 55 gram Amedei bar sells for 13 euros, or 236 euros a kg, about 10 times the cost of industrial chocolates. Gobino chocolates cost about 50 euros a kg.
"They're expensive, but when it comes to spending for quality, high prices are not an issue for our clients," Pogliani said.
Around the world, prices for gourmet chocolates can reach stratospheric heights. In Connecticut, chef Fritz Knipschildt charges $250 for a single dark chocolate with a French black truffle inside – $2,600 per pound.
Turin, Gobino's hometown in northwestern Italy, is the birthplace of Italy's $4 billion-a-year chocolate industry and now accounts for more than one-third of the country's production, which ranks fourth in Europe behind Germany, Britain and France.
First wrapped in Turin
Yet Turin's claims go deeper than that.
Brought from America to Europe by the Spanish, cocoa became the drink of kings. The Spanish royals passed on the fashion to the French, who in turn initiated the Savoy family of Turin.
But it was Turin's chocolatiers who first wrapped chocolate to prevent oxidation, making lasting chocolates. And, they say, they even taught the Swiss.
Turin's own Pier Paul Caffarel in 1826 taught the trade to Francois Callier, the pioneer of Switzerland's chocolate industry. Today Turin's rich and powerful still turn to the city's chocolatiers for special occasions.
Gobino created the centerpiece for the wedding reception of John Elkann, vice-chairman of carmaker Fiat and heir to the Agnelli family empire.
At the reception, 350 chocolate replicas of Fiat's iconic Cinquecento car 'drove' down a chocolate ramp to a base of white chocolate and raspberry, two meters wide and four meters long, all of it weighing 160 kg.
Marina Cutelle, who two years ago opened Chococult, a three-story chocolate bar in Milan, said champagne would have been a good choice to wash down that dessert.
Cutelle, who says she eats a pound of hazelnut chocolate in one sitting and offers a variety of wines and liqueurs to match the selection in her bar, said, "A flute of champagne after a milk chocolate gives maximum pleasure."