Bunny, cross or egg, dark, white or milk -- no matter how you take your Easter chocolate it has to be good, especially if you have given up sweets for the Lenten season. Pittsburgh is fortunate to have many chocolatiers who have been pleasing palates for many years.
Betsy Ann, Sarris, Dorothy's, Esther's, Joe Clark's, Yetters, Pollak's, Anderson's and Edward Marc -- all are family owned and have passed down their recipes and techniques for generations. Just like the Aztecs and the Swiss, our chocolate makers appreciate the alchemy of turning cocoa into irresistible confections, especially during Easter and beyond.
At 86, Harry Paras still comes in to do all the hand decorating of the chocolate Easter eggs.
"I love Easter," he said as he kept an eye on the peanut butter-filled eggs being covered with chocolate.
What's not to love being surrounded by chocolate in so many shapes and sizes?
Truffles have become a signature at Betsy Ann, a decadent reward after Lent.
"My husband wanted to do something that would truly honor the reverence of Easter, and he came up with the chocolate rosary," said Karen Paras. "It is a sweet reward and a way to learn to say the rosary."
What started out as a hobby for Esther Wolfson became a neighborhood institution, Esther's Sweet Shop in Carrick.
"We started in my mother's kitchen," said Bob Wolfson of the business that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
"Our chocolate crosses are kind of special because everyone who works here has God in their heart," he said. "Easter is definitely our biggest chocolate and candy season."
Ed "Butch" Carr, owner of Yetter's in Millvale, agrees. "Easter is our biggest chocolate holiday, too, with Christmas second and Valentine's third."
He took over the business from his in-laws, Gert and Elmer Yetter, who are of German descent and started making and selling candy in 1950. Elmer died, and Butch, who was working for Pepsi at the time, decided to keep the candy tradition going with his wife, Arlene Yetter Carr.
"I remember when we lived above the shop and my father would have me go down after dinner and 'cup the trays' for the next morning's production," she recalled.
That meant lining tray after tray with little brown paper cups that would hold chocolate candy. They still use antique metal molds as well as big copper pots for the chocolate Easter bunnies, baskets and other designs her parents produced
Another company that began at home is Sarris Candies. The Canonsburg-based business now employs approximately 500 people.
"I remember my dad making candy in the basement. I wasn't allowed out to play until I had made 12 chocolate bunnies," said Bill Sarris, who now runs the company. "We still hand-make all the batches of chocolate the way we used to."
He estimates the company makes hundreds of thousands of chocolate Easter bunnies each year. Once, its chocolatiers even cooked up a 300-pound solid mild chocolate bunny for a client. When you add in the eggs and crosses they produce, it's a mountain of chocolate.
Tarentum-based Joe Clark Chocolates is also an inherited operation, complete with those massive copper pots. The Clarks have been making chocolate candy since 1937.
"My Uncle Joe and my father were steelworkers, and Uncle Joe learned how to make chocolate candy from a Greek neighbor," said Bob Clark.
Soon after, the brothers were making candy after their shifts at the mill. They moved into a storefront and never looked back. Today, Bob Clark runs the business with help from daughters Michele and Tamara and his grandchildren.
"It really is a family business," noted Tamara. Their peanut butter eggs and milk chocolate chicks, bunnies and crosses have filled neighborhood baskets for decades.
It was more serendipity than a sweet tooth that got John Mandak into the chocolate business.
"I was actually looking to open my own restaurant when I heard about Valos being for sale. When the restaurant deal fell through, I bought Valos. I had never been in the candy business before," he said.
He spent three years working with Ted Vasilopus, who founded the Arnold company in 1947. "He taught me everything, I had no idea what I was doing."
Chocolate is a tricky business. Just heating it has to be precise.
"Chocolate has three different fats in it, so you have to heat it to about 110 degrees, cool it to 85 degrees and heat it to 89 degrees to get the right flavor, color and consistency," Mr. Mandak explained.
It was a much smaller shop when Mr. Valos owned it, but much of the equipment is still in use, including a cream beater from the 1920s. "We use it every day along with the copper pots and candy stoves," he said.
Dorothy's Candies in White Oak was founded the same year as Valos. It has come a long way since Dorothy Gastel began making sweet treats in her basement in McKeesport. Today the highly regarded chocolate is in the gift baskets at the Academy Awards for the sixth year running.
"When her mother was still alive and actress Goldie Hawn would come home to visit her in McKeeport, she loved to stop in Dorothy's," said Marti Gastel, who now owns the shop with her husband, Robert.
What makes these chocolatiers distinct is the Swiss chocolate they use, which has a higher cocoa content. Like the others they make everything on the premises.
"We hand-dip each piece of chocolate and take a lot of pride in turning our chocolate into delicious confections," said Mrs. Gastel. Their fruit and nut Easter egg is especially popular, but it all flies off the shelves during the Easter season.
Dick Pollak has been making Easter candy since he was in the sixth grade. The father of four is the third generation to run Pollak's Chocolates, based in Etna. They have a retail store in Pittsburgh Mills, but all the candy is made in a tiny shop.
"My grandfather started in his house and then moved the business here."
His grandfather, Mike, was an orphan. He was taken out of the orphanage by a candy maker who made him an apprentice and taught him how to make chocolate creations and other delights. "He had to work for his keep," said Mr. Pollak.
He still makes the candy the way his grandfather and father did with much of the same machinery. "This is an old-fashioned candy business."
Anderson's Candies in Baden has been making candy since 1916, when Harry Anderson came to the U.S. from Greece.
"We are still using his original recipes," said his granddaughter, Mary Anderson, who runs the business with her mother, Goldie, and sister Pamela.
Her children along with nephews, nieces and cousins are all involved, making it a fourth-generation operation. Her father, Harold, moved the factory from Ambridge to Baden. A fire in 1989 burned down most of the building, but some of the antique molds were saved.
What wasn't destroyed was the passion for chocolate. "We chocolate cover everything," she said, laughing. Their latest inventions include chocolate-covered cheese curls and bacon. But it's the peanut butter and fruit and nut eggs, chocolate bunnies and crosses that fill most Easter baskets.
The oldest family owned candy maker in the region is Edward Marc Chocolatier, which used to be Sherm Edwards Candies and then Chocolate Celebrations. The business has been in the same family since 1914, when it was called Keystone Candies.
"Each generation gets to name the company and brand it for themselves," said Mark Edwards, who runs the candy company out of Trafford.
His sister Dana (Manatos) and brother, Christian, work the business from Washington, D.C. Their great-grandparents, Orania and Charlie, came through Ellis Island from Greece. Her father had taught her to make candy and chocolate, which she started selling on the streets of Lawrenceville.
After expanding the business to Washington, D.C., the siblings secured the chocolate contract for the Department of Defense. All three have worked in politics.
"Our parents never pushed us to get into the business, but we all came back to it," Mr. Edwards said. "We've been rolling fruit and nut eggs since we were 5!"
He said a milk chocolate bunny with ears dipped in white chocolate is the company's biggest seller, but it's only one of 235 products the company produces year-round. During the Easter season, they add another 100.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.