On the Side | Chocolate, not mockolate

Of course, Michael Recchiuti, the San Francisco chocolatier with the shaved head, is dead-set against watering down the definition of chocolate. But before we get into that - and what a sinister and devious thing it is - there are several more blocks to walk.

Recchiuti did his tutorial in Center City years ago, waiting tables at Russell's on Lombard Street where he once had to Heimlich a guy so fat he couldn't get his arms around him (he shoved his belly into a counter; they both survived), baking at The Commissary, and plating elegant desserts at a younger Le Bec-Fin.

So I propose a walk-round before he has to head out to see family; a sister in South Philadelphia and a brother in Havertown who had promised to take him out later for an old-school Charlie's burger in Folsom.

We sample Italian pulled pork (Recchiuti's father once ran an Italian grocery store in Upper Darby). We eyeball a couple of new restaurants. But it is at the sushi counter at Morimoto that his curiosity is piqued - not by the bluefin tuna, but by the news that Thomas McCarthy, the young pastry chef, had made a buttered-toast ice cream that - according to the waiter - "tastes exactly like buttered toast."

McCarthy is summoned, and while we spoon down some refreshing Earl Grey tea-infused ice cream (the buttered-toast variety being unavailable this day), he tells us he was tired of seeing trimmed bread crusts being discarded, so he baked them off in the oven and strained the cream through them to make his infusion.

This sets Recchiuti to reminiscing about how his Italian grandmother boiled the rinds of Parmesan with salt and pepper to make a soulful broth for the meatballs and fava beans.

When you get right down to it, this is how Recchiuti's high-end chocolate fillings are made - infusing farmers-market tarragon leaves, for instance, in extra-bitter chocolate ganache (which is then topped with a sliver of candied grapefruit), or toying around similarly with star anise or crushed pink peppercorn.

In fact it's just this inventiveness, and careful blends of El Rey chocolate, and varietals (from Madagascar and Ecuador) of San Francisco's local Guittard, and accents of unsweetened Scharffen Berger that have made the Recchiuti Confections that Michael and his wife, Jacky, founded in 1997 the toast of the West Coast and, through the miracle of mail order, of points east as well.

So it is no surprise that he is offended at the petition from Big Chocolate (Hershey's, Nestlé, Mars, etc.) to change the legal identity of "chocolate." (The industry is asking the Food and Drug Administration to allow substitution of cheaper vegetable fats for cocoa butter in products labeled as chocolate.)

Cocoa butter, he says, is precisely the ingredient you shouldn't mess with: It melts almost on contact in your mouth, giving real chocolate its signature silkiness. "Chocolate-y" confections made with other oils typically offer a waxier feel in the mouth.

Those candies aren't necessarily bad: Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, for instance. But if you call something "chocolate," for goodness sake, it shouldn't be something cooked up in the lab, or deconstructed to maximize profits: "They want to take out the precious [cocoa] butter and sell that off," Recchiuti says.

To add insult to injury, he notes, Hershey's wants to have it both ways, hailing the quality and health benefits of its new premium brands - it recently bought Scharffen Berger, and Dagoba, an organic manufacturer - while lobbying to advantage the low-end market.

In a world where ground meat is gassed to keep it rosy, and "blueberry" cereals can be blueberry-free, where farmed salmon get their coloring from feed additives, and Swiss cheese comes from Norway, Recchiuti says it's time to stop the "dumbing down."

Then he's off to see his brother and, eventually, to New York to cook up a batch of s'mores for a candy blogger in Central Park - made with Recchiuti's dark chocolate, of course.

Not that stuff from Brand X.


For information on how to weigh in on the chocolate debate, go to DontMessWithOurChocolate.com.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols