Noe Valley Voice February 2002

The Recchiutis Give Their Hearts to Chocolate

By Stephanie Rapp

It may be a cliché, but it's true that a box of chocolates is one way to a person's heart. And if the chocolates are Confections by Michael Recchiuti -- watch out-- the object of your desire might swoon.

After all, chocolate is quite a sensuous business. Taste, texture, and aroma merge to create a mouth-tingling experience. Recchiuti likes to tell his customers, "Enjoy the flavor, feel the passion."

It would be hard not to be passionate about chocolates filled with rose caramel, star anise, or lavender vanilla. Then there are the pâté de fruits, intensely flavored fruit gels. Or how about the rush of a candied grapefruit peel dipped in chocolate?

Recchiuti's own love life is fueled by chocolate. He's been married for 13 years to Jacky, who is also his Confections business partner and equally passionate chocolate taster.

Originally from Philadelphia, Michael started his career in the food industry as a pastry chef. About a decade ago, he realized that chocolate was the medium in which he wanted to work, so he began an apprenticeship with top European chocolate makers. "Making chocolate is like making fine wine or cigars," he says. "You can produce a stock and then release it -- unlike pastry, which has to be fresh."

He and Jacky, who hails from Hawaii, met in San Francisco in the 1980s. Both were working in the food business, Michael as a caterer for Taste, and Jacky as a manager at Campton Place.

After they married, the couple stayed here for a few years, then left the city to open a resort in Vermont. But after five years on the East Coast, they decided they'd left their hearts -- and chocolate dreams -- in San Francisco.

They returned in 1996 and worked at other jobs while starting their business. Michael worked as a pastry chef at Noe Valley Bakery Company on 24th Street. Jacky got retail experience at Sue Fisher King, a home design store on Sacramento Street. In 1997, Confections by Michael Recchiuti was born.

The Recchiutis now live, along with their three lovely cats, on Cumberland Street off Church Street. "We enjoy walking through the triangle of Castro, Mission, and Noe Valley," Michael says. "We like discovering new cafés that we can pop into. It's an urban area, but it has a real community feel," agrees Jacky.

But most of their time is spent minding their kitchen and production facility, located near Potrero Hill. With the help of two chocolate makers and two packaging assistants, they turn out truffles, brownies, ice cream, and their signature dessert, key lime pears, an addictive treat of dried pears flavored with key lime, coated in dark chocolate. (A one-ounce bag sells for $6.)

The Recchiutis consider San Francisco a good location for their enterprise, primarily because it is home to a community of chocolate makers. "People help each other. It's less dog-eat-dog than other businesses," says Jacky. "It's important [to us] to try to maintain an artisan chocolate community."

However, because chocolate is extremely volatile -- weather conditions and a small change in the fat content of milk can affect the taste -- they must work hard to produce a consistently excellent product.

The Recchiutis use different brands of fine chocolate, some supplied by the local chocolate producer Scharffen Berger. Chocolate wizard Joseph Schmidt is a good friend. In fact, he helped the Recchiutis get their wares into Neiman Marcus.

Confections by Michael Recchiuti are also available at Confetti Stores, Whole Foods, Buy-Rite, and through the Williams Sonoma catalog. The Recchiutis have even created a line of tea-infused treats for Peet's Coffees.

On Saturdays, you'll find Michael selling and handing out chocolates at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. Shoppers and strollers line up to taste a variety of sweets. "We like people to taste our chocolates, to understand what we do. So we sample a lot of chocolates there," he says.

But one day, the Recchiutis would like to open a European-style confection shop, "kind of like Cocolat was," says Jacky, referring to a chocolate emporium that had a store on 24th Street in the 1980s.

They emphasize that they are confectioners, not just chocolate makers, and they enjoy developing a range of candies and sweets. One of their biggest items is a gourmet take on S'mores, a childhood favorite. The Recchiutis' version stacks bittersweet chocolate, all-natural marshmallow (described in the Williams Sonoma catalog as "soft, billowy clouds"), and spicy graham crackers. Food and Wine magazine featured the treat, which prompted a flood of calls. "We took a lot of orders for February because it's a fun Valentine's gift," Jacky says.

For the traditionalist, the Recchiutis offer a heart-shaped box made of chocolate, filled with heart-shaped bonbons flavored with ginger, caramel, and mocha. Prices range from $10 for a three-inch heart to $32 for the six-inch version. Their eight-flavor chocolate collection, which includes rose caramel, comes in a red, hand-folded box for $20. The Real Food Company on 24th Street will stock these Valentine treats.

The couple's artistic sensibility doesn't end with the chocolates. Packaging is extremely important to the Recchiutis, who design the packages themselves. Jacky looks for things that are beautiful and unusual. She has even used old wire salad spinners as baskets and filled them with truffles. Their boxes are made of origami-like folded cardboard, tied with linen ribbons from Italy.

So how are the Recchiutis able to resist gobbling up their wares? "Chocolate offers comfort," says Jacky. "I admit, on tough days, I 'stress-eat' the chocolates."

Michael tries to put a gender spin on the temptation. "Most of our chocolate is consumed and purchased by women. I think women have more sophisticated palates. A woman will taste a sample and pick out the flavors."

Still, he often can't resist the lure, especially of dark chocolate, which he says offers a surprising fringe benefit. "It's good for your teeth. An enzyme is produced that helps break down plaque while the milk-fat coats and protects your teeth."

But the real reason to indulge in chocolate, says Michael, is its exquisite taste.

"It's a drug, that little morsel of chocolate. It's an experience to savor."

For more information, take a look at the Recchiutis' web site at www.recchiuti