Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - March 8, 2013

Hometown chocolate

Alegio Chocolate opens a second location in Palo Alto to be closer to Peninsula customers

by Rebecca Duran

Since recently opening Alegio Chocolate in Palo Alto, co-owner Panos Panagos has welcomed customers who are already familiar with the business' Berkeley location.

"Most of the people who come now, they know the place and told us that we are competing with ourselves," he said with a laugh.

Seven years after opening in Berkeley, Panagos and co-owner Robbin Everson opened the doors to the Palo Alto shop in late February, to serve all the Silicon Valley residents who would go up to Berkeley to buy chocolate from them, he said.

"We had too many people from Palo Alto — a lot," he said.

Tucked away on Bryant Street downtown, the shop greets people with classical music and red walls adorned with photos and shelves of high-end chocolate bars.

The store carries single-source chocolate made by Claudio Corallo, as well as chocolates and truffles made by Barcelona's Enric Rovira. Panagos calls it "honest chocolate" that is pure cacao, with only the addition of nuts, fruit and organic sugar. Two of the more popular offerings are the 100 percent and the 75 percent chocolate.

Corallo, who produces the chocolate in Sao Tome e Principe in West Africa, will attend the store's as-yet unscheduled grand-opening celebration.

"We don't feel we're ready yet," Panagos said of plans for a grand opening. "We need everything to function perfectly."

Panagos said he hopes that while he's here, Corallo will be able to give a lecture at Stanford University about his ideas and philosophy. "Claudio is a very difficult man to work with, but I feel privileged to be working with him," he said. "He's a great guy. He's a perfectionist."

Corallo initially left Europe for Africa interested in growing coffee beans rather than cocoa. It was when his family moved to Principe that his interest in cocoa beans grew.

Panagos said he met Corallo in Barcelona about eight or nine years ago, when he was looking for a job that would allow him enough time to spend with his kids when he moved to the United States. The name of the shop is a combination of Panagos' two sons' names — Alexander and Giorgio.

Everything used to make the chocolate is from the island of Sao Tome e Principe. Corallo's philosophy and refusal to compromise are the reason that Panagos said he is so passionate about the business. It's important, he said, given the state of the food industry.

"There's only three major companies controlling everything we eat," he said. "We all have to say enough is enough. We can't buy almonds without having something added to it."

He said vanilla, a commonly added ingredient that people associate with the taste of chocolate, is a flavor that covers up everything else. It might be covering up the taste of a bad bean, he said.

Panagos said that is not the case with Alegio because there is no bitterness to the beans, which Corallo roasts over wood fire without burning them, using a specific — and secret — kind of wood.

The 100 percent chocolate is what he calls a "naked" chocolate, and contains no other ingredient but the cocoa beans.

"To me, it's important to taste an honest chocolate, to be able to go out and buy chocolate that's just chocolate," he said.

Experience has shown him that people are willing to go out of their way for his chocolate. He gave the example of a man visiting Palo Alto from Canada who drove up to the Berkeley shop, and a regular customer who bought $600 worth of chocolate before leaving the country. He found that some people would complain about the drive or having to rent a car to get there.

"Robbin said me, 'We're going to have to do something about it,'" he said. "We looked and we happened to have found this place here, just by accident."

Panagos, while grateful for the store's following in Berkeley, has found that people in the Palo Alto area are more willing to pay a higher price for great chocolate.

"I have a community there that supports me greatly, but Berkeley is a different thing," he said. "They want fair trade, organic and cheap. Here, people are much more willing to do it." Even though he wishes all three — cheap, organic and fair-trade — could be possible in a chocolate, they aren't, he said.

Panagos said it's not always the easiest message to convey.

"It's difficult to sell the message to people here without having them taste it, to convey the message that this is high-end chocolate," he said. "People are getting confused. They don't understand the difference between the price and the value. We're just surviving."

Alegio offers a chocolate-tasting tour that teaches about the history of the company and island, while offering samples of an assortment of types of chocolates. The chocolates Alegio carries never have less than 70 percent cocoa. The most expensive chocolate they sell, the 100 percent cocoa with ginger, was the favorite chocolate of the late Steve Jobs, he said. Other popular offerings are an 80 percent with crystallized sugar, one made with orange, and one with "drunken raisins" — raisins macerated in liquor.

Panagos said has seen many people switch to Alegio after they have tried its chocolate.

"A lot of people come back and say, 'You ruined my life,'" he said. "Once they have tried the chocolate, they didn't want go back to other chocolates."

Info: Alegio Chocolates is at 522 Bryant St. in Palo Alto. Call 650-324-4500 or go to alegio.com.

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