I've been cheating on Signore Nutella.
If Nutella is like a familiar pair of comfy jeans, then lately I've been trying on evening gowns, taking it up a notch or two on the gianduja scale with crema di gianduja from some of Italy's finest confectioners.
Last week, I popped over to the gastronomic emporium Volpetti in the Testaccio section of Rome on a sworn mission to just browse (the rent is due soon). Willpower dissolved when I spotted a jar of Giacometta, the crema di gianduja by Piemontese chocolate producer Giraudi. The little card attached proclaimed the percentage of Piemontese hazelnuts at a respectable 32 percent. Sold. Rent, be damned!
Loveable as it is, Nutella is only about 13 percent hazelnut, with a hefty amount of sugar added especially to appeal to the U.S. market. Artisan, or artigianale versions are packed with natural nut oil, which contributes a silky smooth texture. Without all of that sugar you get a punch of super-intense hazelnut flavor, slightly offset by the flavor of the cacao. Artigianale is more expensive but ultimately cost-effective; just a little dab goes a long way. Like new olive oil, crema di gianduja is best when delivered to your palate on a neutral carriermy favorite is lightly toasted bread, warm and still soft in the middle.
Giacometta has joined some of the other jars of crema di gianduja (or crema di nocciole; either name is applied to the same stuff) in my growing collection, which includes Baratti & Milano, Venchi, and Caffarel. They all have hazelnut percentages above 40 percent, and are all made in Piedmont, where the greatest hazelnuts in the world are grown.
I'm still searching my postal code for Crema Novi, the ultimate gianduja spread, according to my Piemontese amici. Made by a commercial chocolate producer based in Novi Ligure, Crema Novi is a plastic-tub brand found in Piemontese supermarkets, priced like Nutella but with a whopping 45 percent hazelnut content and a maniacally devoted fan base. "Why, why, why would you buy Nutella when you can have Crema Novi?" moans my friend from Asti whenever the N-word is mentioned. Because I can't find Crema Novi here, I try to explain. "Boh!" she snorts. That's obviously my problem.
Outside of Italy, you can find many of the brands of crema di gianduja mentioned above, and a few I haven't tried (yet) at Italian import and specialty shops, and from online sellers such as Zingerman's, A. G. Ferrari, Formaggio Kitchen, and iGourmet. In the meantime, let me know if you find Crema Novi anywhere outside of Piedmont, per favore.
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome researching her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.