Savoring La Dolce Vita

From a chocolate waterfall to a Nutella jar doorway, vivid new Italian outposts open in New York

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(This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Cioccolati, cornetti, gelato, and other delectable dolce are luring Manhattanites to a trio of beguiling new Italian shops with convivial cafes and bountiful arrays of chocolate, baked goods, and frozen specialties.

Venchi, Nutella Café, and Princi Bakery arrived almost simultaneously last November, all in high-traffic locations, all corporate owned, and all showcasing Italy’s devotion to stylish design and an ambiance that blends tradition with innovation. With soaring spaces, picture windows, and imaginative wall décor, they have become instantly popular additions to Gotham’s well-established Italian venues, ranging from Sant Ambroeus boutiques to super-sized Eatalys.

The three newcomers have already initiated other stateside forays. Nutella and Venchi have carved out corners within Eataly; Nutella and Princi recently opened Chicago stand-alone stores; and Princi, exclusive purveyor of baked goods at Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, is ensconced at Roasteries in Seattle, Chicago, and New York. Each is planning expansion to other areas, seeking lively sites similar to those already up and running.

For the venerable 140-year-old Venchi’s first Manhattan venture, Paolo Della Mora, the company’s Business Development Director, scouted the city, settling on a former Steve Madden shoe store on Broadway and 18th Street just north of Union Square. A dramatic 10-foot-high and 45-foot-wide chocolate waterfall defines the space, the backdrop for a banquette seating area at the rear of the shop. According to Della Mora, it was a serendipitous solution for an awkward triangular area that had been a storeroom for the previous tenant, and provides a picturesque setting for customers who come to linger over their gelato, crepes, and hot chocolate. The 20 flavors of gelato, house-made daily with the company’s formula, are already well known to enthusiasts who have visited other Venchi shops, over 100 world-wide in 70 countries.

The firm was founded by Silvano Venchi in 1878 in Piedmont, the cradle of Italian chocolate expertise, and home to the region’s top-quality hazelnuts. A stunning display of over 200 varieties of mix-and-match chocolates dominates another wall of the shop – colorfully wrapped cremino, gianduja, nougatine, and bars made with single origin Central American cacaos. At the counter a chocolate fountain dispenses Suprema, the Venchi brand olive oil-based chocolate hazelnut spread, to coat crepes and gelato.

A few blocks south, at 13th Street and University Place, the phenomenally popular Nutella welcomes its legions of fans at an easily recognizable entrance in the shape of the familiar jar. Aficionados flock to the airy, well-lit space to line up at a long counter for everything Nutella.   You can create your own crepes, waffles or pancakes, opt for fruit-filled clafoutis, crème brûlée, or a chia seed parfait to be served tableside, or pick up Nutella-filled cookies, jars of the spread, gift boxes, and a Nutella cookbook to go.

The ubiquitous spread is the heritage of Pietro Ferrero, a Piedmontese pastry shop owner who started making a thick hazelnut chocolate paste just after World War II, and his son Michele, who adjusted the recipe to a spreadable formula in 1961. Rebranded as Nutella, it was quickly acclaimed in Europe, and eventually around the world. Competitors abound, even nearby, with Max Brenner around the corner, and Blue Stripes Cocoa Shop recently opened by Oded Brenner, who created the Brenner chain, just a few doors away, all thriving in this chocolate-infused neighborhood.

Uptown at 51st and Broadway, in a 2,750-square-foot corner space, Princi welcomes a diverse clientele with chocolate brioche for breakfast, lunchtime soups, salads and foccacia/pizzas, afternoon aperitivos, and post-theater pastries. Founded by Milan baker Rocco Princi in 1986, the business has flourished, with satellites from London to Shanghai, and since 2016, a Starbucks affiliation.

The design of the Broadway bakery was inspired by the Milan original: natural materials, earth colored stone, and a 20-foot curated wall displaying colorful ingredients like lemons, peppers and olives, all imported from Italy. Two large ovens are a focal point for fresh baking onsite throughout the day.

Still a hands-on baker obsessed with sourcing top products, Princi’s vision, according to Erin Shane, Starbucks Senior Communications Manager, is to “encourage customers to take pause and enjoy their meal, and engage in a shared experience we call the ‘Spirit of Milan’ right here in New York City.” To achieve that atmosphere, there is a communal table seating 30, a coffee bar, and a bevy of “comessas”, bakers and servers wearing Spirito di Milano t-shirts, to relay the message. Soon they, along with Venchi and Nutella, will be spreading the word, and la bella vita, to other parts of the country.