An Unexpected Chocolate Haven: Erie, Pennsylvania

by Culinary Spelunker / Sep 28, 2015 /
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When it comes to storied chocolate towns in Pennsylvania, most people probably point out Hershey in the southeast—home of the little melt-in-your-mouth kisses that made the company, and town, popular. But Erie, located in the northwestern slip of the state that separates Ohio to the west and New York to the East, hugging Lake Erie’s shoreline, has a chocolate history dating back just as far.

An Unexpected Chocolate Haven: Erie, Pennsylvania

If you happen to be traveling along I-90 between Chicago and Buffalo, perhaps on the way to Niagara Falls or Toronto, it’s worth making a pit stop in Erie to take in the views at Presque Isle State Park – and then to sample chocolate. And more chocolate.

Presque Isle State Park - head there before trying these three great chocolate shops in Erie, Pennsylvania

Arguably, three of the top chocolate shops in Erie (some have more than one location) are Romolo Chocolates, Stefanelli Chocolates, and Pukalos Chocolates.

Romolo Chocolates

With its dusty pink exterior and Mediterranean-style architecture that stands out tucked near a gas station and a nearby elementary, Romolo Chocolates seemed to beckon each time I passed it on my way to explore Presque Isle State Park. Romolo Chocolates, right on one of the main thoroughfares to go into the park, boasts on its sign not only chocolates, but also a cocoa café – yeah, that’s my kind of place. Separated into a café, which serves coffee, ice cream, and pastries, there’s also a shop with various knick-knacks for sale, and finally the chocolate shop. From the counter, you can watch the chocolates being made by hand nearby. I spied the samples on the counter right away and popped one in—even though it was milk chocolate and my usual favorite is anything dipped in dark chocolate. The misshapen chocolate pieces held a crisp, light toffee-like “cookie” inside. I asked the woman behind the counter about the chocolates.

“They’re sponge candy—it’s what we’re known for,” she explained. “It’s an Erie thing.” The texture of the “sponge” had the crispness of a Butterfinger but no peanutty flavor. Instead, the sponge breaks apart quickly in your mouth with the chocolate melting around it at the same time—almost like a sophisticated chocolate-drenched rock candy. I tried to coax the ingredients for the sponge out of the shopkeeper. “We make it by hand with sugar, baking soda, and some other ingredients,” she offered.

Sponge candy from Romolo Chocolates - one of the three chocolate places you must see in Erie, Pennsylvania

Besides sponge candy, Romolo Chocolates is also known for their meltaways—chocolate squares about ¼” thick that have the texture and flavor of French truffles.

Chocolate meltaways from Romolo Chocolates, one of the three chocolate places you must visit in Erie, Pennsylvania

Although Romolo Chocolates has only been open since 1994, its chocolate history goes back much farther and is tied up in one of the other popular shops, which is just down the road  - Stefanelli’s Candies.

Stefanelli’s Candies

Romolo Stefanelli came to the United States from Italy in 1906 as a teenager. His family writes that he learned candy making in New York City and on a trip to Erie met his wife. They made Erie their home and together they started making chocolate--Stefanelli’s Candies began in 1929.

Romolo taught the chocolate trade to his son Tony Sr., who in turn taught it to his son, Tony. The junior Tony went on to open Romolo’s Chocolates in 1994—he named his chocolates after his grandfather, Romolo. Stefanelli’s, which was sold to family friends, Frank and Marilyn DeDionisio, today has come under new ownership.

Like Romolo’s Chocolates, Stefanelli’s shares many of the same favorites, like Sponge Candy and Meltaways.

Pulakos 926 Chocolates

The chocolate maker behind Pulakos Chocolates came not from Italy but from Greece in the late 1890s. Once he immigrated to the U.S., George P. Pulakos sold his chocolates from a cart along the streets of Philadelphia before making his way to Erie.

Pulakos Chocolates stayed in the family for several generations before being sold in 2009 to a local entrepreneur, Joseph M. Hilbert, who wanted to preserve the chocolate shop’s heritage—and recipes. Today you can tour the Pulakos Chocolate Factory and see candy making happen right before your eyes (hair nets provided!). Tours last around 25 minutes and yes, there are samples along the way.

Like their chocolate-making neighbors, Pulakos offers sponge candy, too. Other specialties include chocolate-covered cherries and handcrafted marshmallows paired the caramel and then dipped in…chocolate.

Pulakos Chocolates - one of the three great chocolate stores you must visit in Erie, Pennsylvania

Which chocolate wins the taste test?

Now it seems around Erie, everyone seems to have their favorite among the various chocolate shops. While I could tell you my pick, I think it’s far more fun to discover your family’s top choices by sampling each one.

So the next time you’re driving I-90 passing the sign for Erie, take a break from your travels, head into town, and pick up a few boxes of chocolates. Then head out to find a picnic bench along the beach at Presque Isle State Park (it’s open year round and happens to be the most visited state park in Pennsylvania). Place your assortment of chocolates out and take bites of each one while you watch the boats go by in Presque Isle Bay or Lake Erie.

Presque Isle State Park - head there before trying these three great chocolate shops in Erie, Pennsylvania

You may discover, as I did, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other, but a long tradition of chocolatiers that makes Erie a chocolate outpost worth visiting.

 

 

 

Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at MyKidsEatSquid.com.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Kristen J. Gough

 

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