Foligno is to Perugia what The Midwest is to The East Coast. The latter sophisticated and worldly, perennially the star (and largely deserving it), but often overwhelming and cold. The former gritty and modest, perennially the second-fiddle (and largely resenting it), but often welcoming and warm.
I’m a Midwesterner, so though I recognize Perugia as the cosmopolitan hub of Umbria, it is Foligno where I feel most at home. A small valley city (the third largest after the region’s two provincial capitals, Perugia and Terni), ringed by a discouraging stretch of post-war factories and suburbs, Foligno has its distinctive charm: a lively historic center (currently undergoing a major facelift) with pretty palazzi lining the narrow, shop-filled streets, a unique Piazza with the grandiose Duomo facing the elegant neoclassical Palazzo Trinci, and—most importantly—the unpretentious and humble Folignati themselves, with their simple warmth (hidden, perhaps, behind their very dapper garb) and comforting dialect, all soft vowels and endearments.
Even thinking about chocolate in Umbria, eyes turn automatically to the star of the show: Perugia’s sprawling Perugina factory. But just a stone’s throw away at the far end of the Umbrian Valley, a family from Foligno has been quietly churning out sweets since 1795: the historic Muzzi clan.
Over two centuries ago, Mastro Tommaso di Filippo Muzzi (the family still respects the quaint tradition of naming their first-born sons Tommaso or Filippo alternatively by generation) set up a small shop in the center of Foligno, producing anise-laced minuta candy, a local specialty since the 15th century. Thus began 200 years (give or take—there was a brief period in the 19th century during which the family dipped their toes in the wine business, but quickly returned to their first love) of an un-uninterrupted chain of Tommasos, Filippos, and their extended family, which has gradually expanded the Muzzi line to include cookies and cakes, candy, and–most importantly–a vast array of high quality chocolate.
To give you a concrete example of the Perugia/Foligno juxtaposition (it’s always a good day when I can use that word), here’s how it works to talk to someone official at Perugina and someone official at Muzzi: At Perugina, you call the toll-free number, and the operator forwards your request to someone, who forwards it to someone else, until it eventually ends up at their official press office in Milan, which very promptly and professionally calls you back and with great courtesy provides you with pdf files of their company history and line of products.
At Muzzi, you drive out to their small factory on the outskirts of Foligno and head into the pretty shop at the front. You tell the guy at the counter weighing out chocolates that you need to talk to someone about the company, and he says, “Oh, that’ll be the Signora Loredana” and sends you to the unmarked door at the side of the building. You wander through a warren of hallways and offices, each one leading you further into the depths of the building until you find yourself standing in front of the desk of a grandmotherly, soft-spoken, genteel woman who invites you to sit down and spends the next half an hour talking about her three sons and nine grandchildren. She sends a secretary out to the storeroom to see if she can scare up some sort of company brochure for you, and quietly packs you an overflowing bag full of chocolates “for your kids”. (Quotes mine.)
Only when you look around and notice all the certificates of knighthood and merit, pictures of Popes and presidents, and the benign chaos of stacks upon stacks of papers and documents covering every flat surface do you realize that the Signora Loredana is, in fact, the acting head of the family (widow to Tommaso and mother to Filippo) and company, and a damn formidable businesswoman, to boot. Testimony to the family’s business acumen is the name it has made for itself not only in Italy, but in the rest of Europe, North America, and Asia, where it exports much of its production. The Signora Loredana is particularly proud of the success her tea biscuits have had in high-end boutiques in Paris. And we all know how the Parisians are about their sweets.
Though they made chocolate Easter eggs seasonally beginning in the 1970s, they have only concentrated on their line of chocolate in earnest over the past few decades. Their production has expanded exponentially, and now ranges from the “healthy” (Signora Loredana went to great pains to explain to me that three squares of dark chocolate is as beneficial as an apple. Ok. I’ll buy that.) to the unapologetically decadent (don’t miss the chocolate hazlenut spread, which is what Nutella tastes like in heaven).
You can find Muzzi chocolates at specialty stores around Umbria, but I suggest you stop in at their factory shop on Via Roma in Foligno (you can’t miss it)…here not only will you get a taste of their freshest chocolates, but chances are you’ll catch the smiling Signora Loredana bustling around the shelves herself.Rebecca