Hot chocolate: Savor the best in the 'Burgh and the 'burbs




The holidays are over and months of miserable weather extend into the horizon. It may be hard to coax yourself out to restaurants and cafes this time of year, but there are still lots of good reasons for seeking out new food and drink experiences. Winter is far from my favorite season, but it is the perfect time to enjoy one of my very favorite things: Hot chocolate.

I love hot chocolate. And while you can learn about making delicious hot chocolate at home in our Food & Flavor section today, I think there is something particularly enjoyable about drinking hot chocolate that someone else has made for you. The experience is as much a part of the enjoyment as the drink itself.

That's why there are world-famous hot chocolate spots, including Angelina in Paris, Rivoire in Florence and City Bakery in New York to name just a few. To a hot chocolate connoisseur, it's not enough just to find and drink one delicious kind of hot chocolate. Debating the merits of different styles, services and preparations is half the fun.

These famous houses almost universally make true hot chocolate -- melted chocolate with steamed milk or water rather than hot cocoa, made with cocoa powder, milk and sugar. That's a little unfortunate, because hot cocoa, while certainly less exciting than hot chocolate, still exhibits a wide range of quality. Hot cocoa also takes very well to accompaniments such as marshmallows, which can be a little superfluous in a cup of dark hot chocolate.

Like most things in our fair city, hot chocolate spots in Pittsburgh tend to fly a little under the radar. But there are a number of places that any chocolate-lover should add to their list. At least a couple of times this winter, take an hour or so to enjoy hot cocoa or hot chocolate at one of the following spots. I guarantee it will brighten your day, no matter how gloomy the skies.

THE INN ON NEGLEY

If I had to pick a favorite chocolate discovery, it would be the cocoa service at the Inn on Negley. During my early January visit, the inn was decked out for the holidays with greenery, ornaments and multiple trees. Outside it was snowing, but inside we were cozy and comfortable.


Places to visit

• Inn on Negley, Shadyside, 412-661-0631; served daily, noon-4 p.m., Cookies and Cocoa, $6.

• Aldo Coffee, Mt. Lebanon, 412-563-1220; $2.95.

• Mon Aimee Chocolat, Strip District, 412-395-0022; served Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. (approximately); one size, $1.99.

• Crepes Parisienne, Oakland, 412-683-1912; Shadyside, 412-683-2333; one size, $4.

• Tango Cafe, Squirrel Hill, 412-421-1390; one size, $3.20.

• Nicholas Coffee, Downtown, 412-261-4225; small, $2


The hot cocoa is presented in a beautiful white porcelain cocoa pot with a thin body and long spout. Made from a dark chocolate, high-fat cocoa powder, it has a rich, full taste and a smooth texture. Along with the cocoa comes a bowl of irresistibly light and fluffy house-made vanilla marshmallows as well as a bowl of freshly whipped cream topped with mint leaves and shards of white chocolate. Small heaps of cookies, such as tiny crisp orange biscotti and espresso chocolate chip, are a final delight.

You might assume that so many sweets would be just too much, but because everything is made from scratch from high-quality ingredients, the sweetness isn't overwhelming. Even the marshmallows had a softer, lighter flavor than the overwhelming sweetness of store-bought marshmallows.

Hot cocoa (and tea) is served from noon to 4 p.m. every day. Reservations are required and must be made by 9 a.m. on the day of the visit. The cocoa service is $6 per person.

ALDO COFFEE

Aldo offers regular hot cocoa with whipped cream and/or mini-marshmallows (small, $1.95), as well as a wide variety of flavored syrups that can be added (50 cents). It's not on the menu, but a Cocoa Aldo has vanilla syrup and cinnamon (small, $2.45). But for chocolate and coffee lovers, there's a really special drink.

Aldo Coffee is one of very few cafes in the United States serving bicerin (Bee-chair-een), a traditional drink from the Piedmont region of Italy. The drink got some attention during the 2006 Winter Olympics, because it's practically the official drink of Torino. I can see why -- this is a truly delicious drink. Made from layers of espresso, drinking chocolate and lightly thickened cream, it's similar to a mocha, but there's a smaller amount of much more intense chocolate, so the flavors are clearer and more balanced. Served in a martini glass, it's a beautiful drink, as well as a tasty one.

MON AIMEE CHOCOLAT

Amazingly, I still occasionally discover a Pittsburgh-based chocolate lover who hasn't been to this spectacular Strip District shop. Owner Amy Rosenfield devotes her time to tracking down the best and most interesting assortment of chocolate bars and candies from around the world, but they do have one product made right in the shop: True drinking chocolate made with milk chocolate, dark chocolate or dark chocolate with spices (one size, $1.99). For hot chocolate devotees, this is the real deal. A small cup of thick, intense chocolate, undiluted by garnishes, just enough to savor without going into a chocolate coma. Served Monday through Saturday, usually from around 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

CREPES PARISIENNES

Though it might be hard to resist one of their delectable sweet crepes, this spot also brings French attitude to hot chocolate. They steam together milk and 64 percent dark French chocolate, top it with whipped cream and a few extra chocolate pastilles. The relaxed, cozy atmosphere also makes this a lovely place to sit and chat or read a newspaper, especially when it's rainy or snowy outside. You might even be able to imagine you're drinking hot chocolate in Paris.

TANGO CAFE

The Tango Cafe serves a standard hot cocoa, but the drink to order is the Submarino ($3.20), an Argentinean-style hot chocolate where a bar of semi-sweet chocolate is dropped into a mug of steamed milk. You'll want to pause your conversation or reading for a few minutes when you get this drink to stir it up and watch the streams of chocolate dissolve. The Submarino isn't a very intense hot chocolate, but the chocolate flavor is still discernible, and the drink has a nice, balanced sweetness. It's more of an afternoon pick-me-up than an intense dessert.

Sadly, the Tango Cafe is looking for a new location, because their current building will be taken over by Forward Square, a hotel-condominium project, in April. But wherever they wind up, the Submarino will still be on the menu.

NICHOLAS COFFEE ROASTERS

While a number of other cafes in Pittsburgh serve equally good hot cocoa made here from Ghiradelli's cocoa powder, Nicholas Coffee's Downtown location makes it worthy of a mention. It's only a block or so away from the ice skating rink at PPG Place. And as much as I'm sure everyone appreciates a concession stand, it would be a shame to buy hot cocoa there when Nicholas' superior version is right around the corner. This kind of hot, sweet drink is also perfect for anyone who has gotten chilled walking around Downtown. A cup of this hot cocoa might even make a winter walk along the river a pleasant form of exercise.

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Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198. First Published January 8, 2009 5:00 AM




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