Venchi’s chocolate master Giovanni Battista Mantelli lives and breathes the sweet stuff. And he’s made some especially for you. Yes, you.
Life, as Tom Hanks in his Academy Award-winning masterstroke would drawl, is like a box of chocolates. While a box of chocolates – specifically this Gump-ian selection, myriad in flavours – has always stood for the kismet of delicious chance encounters whatever they may be, it so happens that chance has nothing to do with Venchi’s chocolate master Giovanni Battista Mantelli’s chocolatey vocation. And chocolatey obsession.
“I come from a family of chocolatiers and pâtissiers,” he says, his eyes crinkling at the mention of his “symbolic” baptism as an infant, with a drop of – what else? – chocolate. “I’d always help my grandfather during summers when I wasn’t in school. I still vividly remember the smell of cocoa and hazelnuts roasting. It was like the first bacio for me, the first kiss you never forget.” And ever since, it’s been nothing but amore.
You only have to venture past Venchi’s prismatic Pick & Mix nooks in its boutiques, which are christened Chocogelateria, to grasp the universe of chocolate – and not just chocolate: there’s the Gianduiotto, ever faithful to its original recipe, nuggets of Chocoviar, spreads and bars and swirls upon swirls of gelato – that’s grown with such decadent fervour since the brand’s inception at 1878. For Mantelli, who serves as both innovator and guardian to Venchi’s 145-year-old recipes, each passing crumb of confectionary stands for much more than his extensive chocolate-ing resume. Rather, it’s a scrumptious march through decades of formative, intensely personal memories.
“The summer when I was 15,” Mantelli says, holding up Venchi’s Grandblend Montezuma Nibs 75%, all rose-gold and shiny, “I’d ruined a recipe by accident. It was a mistake. But after we tasted the product, we agreed it was so, so nice.” What was once a harried mistake is now a delectable best-seller.
He’d finger through cubes of Matcha (“It represents my open mind,” he says of the chocolate rendered in homage to his travels to Japan), pick out the black-foiled Chocoviar 75% as his current favourite and pause, just for a moment, over the pink- filmed, trapezoidal Gianduia n.3s.
“I discovered a cocoa from Venezuela that tastes almost milky,” Mantelli recalls, his expeditions for ingredients taking him to places far, wide and delightfully inspiring. “Gianduia n.3 is named so because it’s made from just three ingredients. The first, hazelnut paste. Then, a special sugarcane from the Caribbean with a hint of vanilla. And lastly the Venezuelan cocoa with that hint of milk, hint of cream.
“So, instead of a long list of ingredients, I have just three,” he says. “It’s like Italian cooking, like spaghetti pomodoro: three ingredients make a beautiful dish.”
And Gianduia n.3, purposively vegan-friendly and tasting almost exactly of milk chocolate despite containing no milk, illustrates the kind of experimentation that truly excites Mantelli: chocolate that, as he describes, is functional.
“Chocolate is like a tie, a perfume,” he enthuses, delving into the reasoning behind the impressive breadth of genres Venchi’s chocolates take form in. “Each person chooses his personal perfume, his personal tie. Maybe you’re someone who loves shopping, so you’d want variety. Maybe you love pistachio, so only pistachio-filled chocolates will do. Maybe you’re health-conscious: we have a range made with 70 percent less sugar. Or maybe you love to try different types of products to open your mind – we have that too. I have many different chocolates,” the Venchi chocolate master continues, quite simply, “because I have many different customers.”
It’s this same measure of wonder that inspired the legacy chocolate brand’s most recent collaboration with the restaurant Cantina, working alongside executive chef Andrea Mura to fashion a dinner with Venchi chocolate featured through all five courses and not, as is tradition, just for dessert. “Chocolate is like a conductor of flavour, something that enhances the taste of the other ingredients,” says Mura of the unusual collaborative menu. “The bitterness from the Chocoviar with a hint of extra-aged balsamic vinegar is beautiful,” Mantelli adds, evidently excited about his favourite ingredient’s venture into palates and territories unknown. “It’s an experience for the tongue. You have the sweet, then the bitterness, the acidity and the sour. It’s a rich experience.”
And beyond the vegan Venezuelan cocoa, the savoury excursions and the brand’s signature Piedmontese hazelnuts, it’s precisely this deference to hospitality in service of the customer – whoever and wherever they may be – that typifies a true Venchi experience. Pacific Place’s world’s- first vegan concept store is a monument to such standards of care. As is Venchi’s slogan, Italian allegria, which, according to Mantelli, is impossible to translate in English.
But he’s going to try anyway.
“Allegria is much more than joyful,” Mantelli says. “It’s a mix of ingredients with passion, with determination. It’s sharing a moment with friends and family, to have a party that makes you feel good, makes you feel loved. It’s the colour of the chocolate, the colour of the packaging.
“What’s the first ingredient of allegria?” he asks, the answer patently spread across his face. “It’s a smile. A welcome. An Italian welcome.”
And as Mantelli insists upon shoving our palms and pockets full of chocolate he’s so lovingly, so passionately created, it seems allegria isn’t so untranslatable after all.
(Hero image: Giovanni Battista Mantelli and Cantina’s executive chef Andrea Mura bond in Italian)