Bribery (Hot Chocolate, Italian-Style)

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The first time my husband and I took our kids to Italy was in 2004. Our daughter was six and our son had just turned eight. It was a two-week trip to research my first cookbook. I was excited about that. But what I was looking forward to even more was showing my children the place their mother adored so much and tended to go on and on (and on) about; the place where I had spent so many endless summers when I was growing up.

Except it was November. And instead of being down at the beach on the coast of Abruzzo, which is where I had spent most of my time as a girl, we were way up on a hill in a small farmhouse we had rented in Umbria, far away from summer or the seashore. There were no other families with kids around. It was a great place to be if you were researching soups and stews, but maybe not such a great place if you were six or eight.


It was, in short, not the kid-friendliest trip. The colorful, cultivated hills were cloaked in mist, and a chilly drizzle seemed to be about all the time. Our days consisted of a lot of driving. We would pick a town on the map and head toward it, our ultimate goal being (always) to find a good meal. It usually took much longer than we bargained for to get wherever we were going (in Italy, everything looks much closer on the map). We criss-crossed Umbria and ventured over the border into Tuscany, hitting, in our haphazard way, Arezzo, Assisi, Cortona, Deruta, Gubbio, and other places before eventually heading back to Rome to visit my cousin.

When we weren’t driving we were walking, which the kids liked because the hill towns with their narrow cobbled streets reminded them of Hogsmeade (or what Hogsmeade might be like if J.K.Rowling were Italian). And when we weren’t walking we were eating, which they sort of liked, but let’s face it, when you are six and eight eating is just not a priority, no matter how good the food is (unless the food is called gelato).


Still, once they had resigned themselves to the cruel reality that this trip was to be nothing like, say, Disney World (which they have yet to visit), the kids proved to be troupers. Though I might be blocking out certain moments of back-seat bickering and smacking and whining and exasperated scolding.

Let’s just say there was a certain amount of bribery involved–in addition to gelato, a stuffed animal here, a soccer ball there, a couple of those plastic faux tourist cameras that show different attractions in the view finder when you click the little button. And hot chocolate. Lots of hot chocolate. Italian cioccolata calda is halfway between a drink and a spoon dessert, very dark and thick and with a bitter edge. Our daughter would drink it hot and our son would wait for it to cool and eat it like warm pudding. It quickly became a daily ritual for us to stop at a bar late in the afternoon after walking around in the chilly mist. My husband and I would toss back one (or two) espressos and the kids would have their hot chocolate.

Six years down the road we still talk about our first trip to Italy together, so I am not sure why it didn’t occur to me sooner to try a homemade version of cioccolata calda. At any rate, when the power went out during last week’s storm a lightbulb finally switched on in my head. I had all of the ingredients–milk, cream, cocoa, sugar, and cornstarch (the secret ingredient)–plus a gas stove, and it turned out to be one of those happy occasions in which a single attempt was all it took. My daughter drank hers hot and my son let his cool and used a spoon.

What drinks are you stirring up to keep warm this winter?

Makes 2-3 servings

Cioccolata Calda (Italian-Style Hot Chocolate)

This is a very rich version of hot chocolate, so rather than serving it in mugs I use cappuccino cups, which are shallower. You could even serve it in espresso cups as a drinkable dessert. Use the best unsweetened cocoa powder you can find. I used Pernigotti, a brand my mother favors that is produced in Novi Ligure Alessandria, north of Genoa, and which I purchased at Williams-Sonoma.


  • 1 cup milk (I used skim; whatever you have is fine)
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch


Measure the milk, cream, and cocoa powder into a saucepan and set it over medium heat. Begin whisking to incorporate the ingredients, and reduce the heat to medium-low or low if necessary to prevent it from boiling.

When the milk is warm, gently whisk in 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Continue to cook over a gentle flame until the cocoa and sugar are dissolved and the mixture is steaming hot. Add a little more sugar for sweeter hot chocolate.

Measure the cornstarch into a small bowl. Spoon a little of the hot chocolate mixture into the bowl and stir it into the cornstarch. Pour this mixture into the hot chocolate and continue to whisk over low heat for another couple of minutes, until thick and smooth but still drinkable.

Cooking time (duration): 10 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 2-3

Meal type: dessert

Culinary tradition: Italian

Copyright © Domenica Marchetti.

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23 Responses to Bribery (Hot Chocolate, Italian-Style)

  1. Sara January 31, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    Gosh such decadent hot chocolate! We took our kids to Italy in 2006, we spent 2 weeks and they loved it! 🙂 ofcourse I have been to beautiful Italia about 5 times already…and would love to go to Sicily next time!

    • Domenica January 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

      Italy is such a great place to take kids, isn’t it, Sara. Sicily is beautiful, though it has been many years since I’ve been there. Time to go back!

  2. foodwanderings January 31, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    Love the story and more intrigued by the secret ingredient. No wonder the cocoa looks so lucious. J & S are big fans of cocoa, me not so much but would be a nice surprise if I make this for them one morning with breakfast or brunch. BTW, I can recall a similar story, S about same age of your kids and we are an hour from Newcastle, England near the Scottish border beautiful but not kid friendly but they all make memories:).

    • Domenica January 31, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

      Shulie, I was looking at the pictures from the trip as I was writing the blog post and it made me feel so nostalgic. Yes, they all make memories. Have never been to Scotland, but it is on our list (my husband is part Scottish). Every time we get the opportunity to travel, though, we always seem to end up back in Italy…

  3. janie January 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    I brought some cocoa powder back from our last trip and I am going to make this today. Thank you for sharing the story of your trip.

    • Domenica January 31, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Janie. It’s pretty darn indulgent, but worth the splurge now and again. Cheers

  4. Barbara | VinoLuciStyle January 31, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    This looks like chocolate mousse in a cup; it’s obvious how rich it is! Can’t wait to try it. Indulgent yes, but it’s snowing here today; isn’t that a good enough excuse? 🙂

    • Domenica January 31, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

      Yes, snow is DEFINITELY a valid excuse, Barb. Thanks for your comment & enjoy.

  5. Olga @ MangoTomato January 31, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    My eyes almost jumped out of my head when I saw the amount of heavy cream! No wonder that hot chocolate is awesome 🙂

    I would love a cup of it right now.

    Great photo of your kids 😉

    • Domenica January 31, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

      Shhh…you’re not supposed to notice how much heavy cream it calls for ; ) Actually, you could use more milk and less cream and it would still be good. And thank you re: kids’ photo. I miss those days…

  6. Prerna@IndianSimmer February 1, 2011 at 3:42 am #

    I’ve been dreaming of going to Italy for a while now and now I have another reason to think about it even more. Ur blog will keep reminding me 🙂

    • Domenica February 1, 2011 at 3:47 am #

      Thank you, Prerna! So glad we connected. Cheers

  7. Frankie February 2, 2011 at 1:02 am #

    Domenica, didyou grow up on the Princeton, NJ area. My daughter, Nancy Apple a teacher in the Montgomery school system, was very friendly with a Marchetti family and I believe had Domenica as a student. We were fortunate to have been invited for a beautiful dinner at the home of the Marchetti relatives in Rome. It is a memory that I shall always cherish.

    • Domenica February 2, 2011 at 2:45 am #

      Yes, this is she! Your daughter was my 6th grade math teacher and I adored her. I’m so glad you still remember the dinner at my aunts’ home in Rome. I have many wonderful memories from those days as well! Thank you for your lovely comment.

  8. Sally Barucchieri December 12, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    mmmm, che buono! grazie per la ricetta!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 12, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

      Ciao Sally ~ grazie a the! Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  9. Rita December 13, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Thanks Domenica! We had a very similar experience when we took our kids to Castellina in 2004. Cioccolata Calda has been a favorite of theirs ever since and I’m delighted to have the recipe to share this holiday season!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 13, 2013 at 9:23 am #

      HI Rita ~ nothing beats enjoying la cioccolata calda in Italy but this will at least bring back some good memories. I haven’t made it for my kids since last year. It’s about time! Cheers, D

  10. Gillian Pilgrim July 23, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    My daughter and I lived in Sicily for four years at the end of the 90s. From time to time, a charming friend would buy her a cup of this at the corner bar. We left in 2000, and she has never stopped talking about the thick hot chocolate she loved so much. Tonight I found this recipe and made her a cup. She is now the happiest girl in the world. Thank you so much for posting this!

    • Domenica Marchetti July 24, 2014 at 7:58 am #

      Gillian, thanks for writing. Your comment made my day. Incredible that your daughter would remember the hot chocolate all these years later (but that’s Italian hot chocolate for you, right?). I hadn’t looked at this post in a long time and seeing the photo of my own two kids made me so nostalgic. This summer we are touring colleges for our son. How the years fly by…

  11. Jennifer C November 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Thank you for this recipe. I visited Italy with my sister in January 2001. It was wet and drizzly for much of the trip. I ordered hot chocolate just once as a treat (as an alternative to the Caffe Americano I’d been ordering most of the time). I was completely unprepared for the warm pudding concoction that arrived and I’ve never forgotten it. It may be years before I can return to Italy, I plan to try to make this recipe this winter but I fear once my kids try it like this they won’t accept the usual packet of Swiss Miss.

    • Domenica Marchetti November 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

      Hi Jennifer, I’m so glad you found the recipe. I hope your kids enjoy it as much as mine did ~ and still do all these years later. Cheers and thanks for reading, D.


  1. Tweets that mention Hot Chocolate, Italian-Style: a thick, rich winter treat -- - January 31, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Domenica Marchetti, Scott Vance. Scott Vance said: When bribing your kids yields a sweet memory. And some great Italian hot chocolate. w/ #recipe from @domenicacooks […]

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