When I arrived in the splendid Baroque city of Modica, I came prepared to indulge in the many culinary delicacies of eastern Sicily: from luscious bowls of granita al pistachio and stuffed scacce flatbreads to freshly-made pastas accompanied by a chilled glass of Etna Bianco wine. I was also curious to try the city’s famous chocolate of Modica, a specialty that intrigued (and slightly perturbed) me. That’s because Cioccolato di Modica isn’t smooth and buttery like Gianduiotti from Torino, or sweet and fluffy like Baci from Perugia. Instead, it has a peculiar sandy texture that resembles pumice stone.
Chocolate of Modica is an IGP product with “protected geographical indication” making it one of Sicily’s many regional specialties – not to mention, an excellent example of the country’s appreciation for slow food. It develops a gritty texture because it is ground by hand, rather than using a conche machine, and it is processed at a very low temperature of 45°C (113°F) so the sugar solids don’t melt.
The chocolate is naturally raw and also vegan. Chocolate in Modica is made with two ingredients – cocoa beans and cane sugar – without any cocoa butter, milk or other animal products. This means it preserves the cocoa’s aromatic flavors and won’t melt in the hot Sicilian sun. It’s a kind of meditative chocolate to be savored on its own, and often comes flavored with ingredients like lemon, sea salt and pepperoncino.
During my stay in town, I was surprised to discover that the best chocolate in Modica was not being made at the oldest chocolate factory in the city, a celebrated 19th century confectionary that tops any must-see list of the city. The best chocolate in Modica wasn’t even being made by a native Sicilian, but by a man named Simone Sabaini who hails from the northern city of Verona.
For a country with deep-seated regional pride and a penchant for tradition, it’s unusual to see Italians leave their native regions – and rarer still to see northerns head south. Simone Sabaini, however, was looking for a slower lifestyle and arrived in Sicily armed with a passion for cocoa and an entrepreneurial spirit. After a career in finance and years working in fair trade, he was well-positioned to enter the chocolate market in Modica and quickly set upon to improve the state of chocolate in the city.
Chocolate in Modica had been traditionally made for immediate consumption, meaning it couldn’t be exported and enjoyed by an international public. It would turn white and crumbly in its package and lose its health benefits and flavor notes. By working the chocolate at a low temperature for a longer period of time, and using the highest quality ingredients from hand-picked producers, Sabaini was able to create a chocolate with an 18-month expiry date and set a new standard for the city.
He opened his workshop Sabadì in 2011 and his chocolate was recognized as the best in the city within its first year, winning the prestigious Tavoletta d’Oro (Gold Bar award), beating out the established competition. And he has continued to win for 9 consecutive years, spurring him to expand his business and give back to his adopted city.
Together with the University of Ferrara, Sabaini launched a line of Superfood Chocolate with functional benefits designed to promote youth, beauty and even sexual health with ingredients including açai berries, bee pollen, licorice root and maca. He also created the world’s first “cantina” for chocolate: a chocolate aging cellar where slabs of chocolate are submerged in dried flowers, spices or tobacco for weeks so the cocoa butter absorbs the aromas and delicately infuses the chocolate.
For those looking for other treats, Sabadì also sells organic candies sweetened with Sicilian black bee orange blossom honey, sparkling water flavored with citrus juice, and nougats featuring Sicilian almonds and pistachios. Sabaini has also recently opened a second branch of his chocolate shop in nearby Ortigia (see my travel guide here).
What really inspired me about Sabaini wasn’t only his knack for innovation, but his philanthropic spirit and vision. In addition to improving upon Modica’s chocolate tradition, he has also invested heavily in the cultural heritage of the city. The magnificent Orti di San Giorgio public gardens had been largely abandoned until Sabaini made a major investment to refurbish this verdant enclave.
Today, the gardens are a beautiful escape in the arid city and a magical place to unwind day or night: come relax during the day with a good book, or stop by for pizza, cocktails and natural wine in the evenings. During the summer months, Gli Orti di San Giorgio hosts live music under the stars. Nearby, Sabaini reopened the 18th century Palazzo Castro Grimaldi for guided tours and also launched the Stanza del Cioccolate B&B with impressive views over the Duomo di San Giorgio, just steps from Sabadì.
If you’re traveling through the Val di Noto, you cannot miss visiting the city of Modica and tasting Sabadì’s award-winning chocolate. You can also order products online here.