An insightful history about hot chocolate and where to find the best cup in Florence.

Thu 15 Dec 2022 2:51 PM

On a cold winter’s day, especially around Christmas time, one of the oldest traditions in Florence is to stop off at the historic cafe Rivoire in piazza della Signoria to drink a steaming cup of delicious hot chocolate, lashed with a dash of whipped cream. It is paradise in a cup. While locals and passing tourists enjoy this liquid treat, it also did not escape the attention of famous personalities like poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, actress Eleonora Duse and Sandro Pertini, who, on visits to Florence during his time as president of the Italian Republic, would always talk to journalists at Rivoire. But Rivoire is more than just a cafe. It is also a cocktail bar, restaurant and laboratory, which creates its own finest quality, signature chocolate products.

Chocolates at Rivoire, the historic cafe in Florence’s piazza della Signoria. Illustration by Leo Cardini

Drinking hot chocolate is believed to have originated in Mexico as early as 500 BCE, when the Mayans mixed ground cocoa seeds with water, cornmeal and chilli peppers. They poured the mixture between the pot and cup until it thickened and drank it cold. The beverage did not reach Europe until the 1500s when Hernán Cortéz brought cocoa beans and the implements needed for drinking chocolate back from his explorations in South America. As its popularity grew, it was adopted by the court of King Charles V and Spain’s aristocracy, but in order to make it more palatable it was served hot, sweetened and without chillis. The Spanish were secretive about the discovery, so it took more than a century for news to spread across Europe, only arriving in London in the 1700s where chocolate houses began springing up, despite the fact that chocolate was very expensive. In the late 1700s, it was the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Hans Sloane, who brought a recipe for mixing chocolate with milk from Jamaica and paved the way to hot chocolate as we know it today.

In late October 2022, over 500 guests celebrated Cafe Rivoire’s 150th birthday and were treated to an exclusive chocolate Martini cocktail and a special chicken liver terrine with white chocolate and truffles, while watching a master chocolatier craft chocolate sculptures with a musical accompaniment. Added to this, five students from the Accademia Nemo produced a limited edition of the Vedute con praline (Views with pralines), Rivoire’s famous chocolate boxes made to contain some of the store’s most loved chocolates. For over 35 years, master chocolatier Marco Bianchi has worked his magic in Rivoire’s laboratory, creating what he calls his “tasting tablets”, or milk, white, dark 52%, dark 70% and dark 90% chocolate bars. Peruvian cocoa creates the 90% dark chocolate, cocoa from Venezuela the 70% dark chocolate, cocoa from Uganda 52% dark chocolate and milk chocolate from Ariba. To mark Rivoire’s century and a half, specialties were added to the list, such as the Animal Lux line, chocolate bars decorated with ethnic-inspired motifs depicting faraway places, such as the python and the crocodile patterns. Another additional limited edition delicacy is the Lingotto Rivoire, which is made to be served in slices, consisting of Ugandan dark chocolate filled with gianduia cream and whole hazelnuts.

Rivoire was opened in 1872 as a “steam chocolate factory” by Enrico Rivoire, who was born in Turin where he invented his take on hot chocolate. He became a renowned chocolatier and pastry chef and was soon made the official chocolate supplier to the Savoy royal family. When Florence became the new capital of united Italy, Enrico decided to follow the court to the new location and so today Rivoire continues in a place that maintains all the charm of its 19th century beginnings. In 1977, the Rivoire family sold the business to the Bardelli brothers. Although still in early 20th-century style, the furnishings mainly date to the renovations in 1980. In 2020, the Rivoire company changed ownership again, which undertook the restructuring of the production premises, added the dinner service and improved the services offered. The current owner, who is also a lawyer, businessman and art collector, Carmine Rotondaro, is a visionary. Not only is he a fierce custodian of Rivoire’s heritage, but he is also an ambitious champion of its future. “My plan is that Rivoire Florence is not just a place, but that it becomes established as an international brand of Italian tradition,” he stated in a recent interview. This means restyling and modernizing, something currently in progress with the help of the best professionals he can find in their various fields, so that the Rivoire message and values can reach “the four corners of the world, supported by an effective commercial policy,” but with everything starting from Florence.

The next step in Rivoire’s history will be to open a new store in the Brera district of Milan to bring the ideal mix of fashion, art and fine flavours, including the wonderful hot chocolate. 

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