By Donna Cornelius
Before you push open the door of Chocolatà, an artisan chocolate shop in downtown Birmingham, stop and look down. Carved in the concrete at the entrance to the shop are three words: “You are here.”
If chocolate is one of your greatest pleasures in life, you’ve indeed arrived at a place where the sweet treat has a starring role.
Kathy D’Agostino worked in visual display and design before opening Chocolatà in September. She said her fascination with chocolate started when she was a child.
“I’ve always loved chocolate,” D’Agostino said. “My mom had an appreciation for good chocolate. We’d get it for Easter. She would go to the chocolatier and get the best she could find.”
Some people might think their children would be just as happy with a Hershey’s bar as with high-grade chocolate. D’Agostino disagrees.
“I think that kids have a very fine palate if you encourage it,” she said.
When she was 16 years old, D’Agostino got her first job at a chocolatier.
“It was around the corner from my parents’ house in Jacksonville, Florida,” she said. “When I saw the ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, I went in.”
Her first assignment at the shop wasn’t making chocolate, but wrapping it. The Jacksonville Art Museum was hosting a King Tut exhibit, and D’Agostino’s new employer had been com- missioned to make 10,000 chocolate pharaoh heads.
“They needed temporary help wrapping the heads,” she said. “They were impressed with my wrapping – I was fast – and asked if I’d like to work during the summer and on weekends. On Valentine’s Day, my mom would let me take off from school so I could work.”
Later, the shop owners also taught her how to temper chocolate. Tempering is a process that increases the shine and durability of chocolate couverture, the high-quality chocolate used to make truffles, bonbons and other fine candies.
D’Agostino, who lives in Homewood with her husband, Kyle, said she opened Chocolatà last fall because she “was ready for a change, for a new challenge.” She spent time doing research before getting back into the chocolate business.
“I reached out to as many distributors who worked with bean-to-bar companies as possible,” she said. Bean-to-bar refers to those who make chocolate directly from cacao beans.
“For professional use, you use chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa butter,” D’Agostino said. “The cacao beans are single origin. They come from one region, like Ecuador, Peru or Trinidad. The process is highly controlled. Like coffee, the flavor profile depends on the region and its soil conditions and environment.”
Just after she opened Chocolatà, she traveled south to see firsthand the origin of some of the chocolate she uses.
“I visited Ecuador, where the grass-fed cows are milked by hand,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place with lovely people who live wholesome lives.”
Among the most popular creations at Chocolatà are her inclusion bars, which combine chocolate with other ingredients. An often-requested bar is the Dixie at Dusk, a dark milk blend of single-origin chocolate with Southern- inspired ingredients: roasted pecans, brown sugar, rosemary and smoked sea salt.
“I try to use ingredients that are good pairings with the flavor profiles of the chocolate,” she said.
Also on her menu are ganache-filled bonbons, chocolate-dipped fruits and chocolate popcorn. Her chocolate charcuterie looks like a salami but is sweet, not savory. It’s made of chocolate, biscotti, walnuts, almonds and citrus. It’s a tasty addition to a cheese tray and makes a great hostess gift.
“One surprise hit has been our chocolate gnomes,” D’Agostino said. “I wasn’t thinking I’d do novelty molds, but these have been so popular that I thought I’d do them all the time.”
Her shop’s Mystic Eyes are made in eye-shaped molds and filled with different ganaches. Like many of her chocolates, the name of the candies has a heavenly connection.
“I’ve always been intrigued by astrology, so I brought in a celestial theme,” she said.
She worked with an astrologer to decide on a good time to open her shop and to choose its name. In Vedic astrology, sounds are important, she said.
“My astrologer thought the ‘ta’ sound would ensure success, and I thought it went well at the end of chocolate,” D’Agostino said.
She offers timely treats for holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Easter and has some cool confections planned for Mother’s Day.
“I’ll be making chocolate boxes with special flavors, and each will include an ‘oracle card’ with a fortune or a positive message,” she said.
You can place orders online, but it’s a treat to actually visit Chocolatà. You not only can choose from D’ Agostino’s tempting chocolates, you can watch her at work.
“I always had this in the back of my mind,” she said about her return to the world of chocolate. “You grow up, move on, and things get pushed back. I wanted to do something creative. And I was excited to see all the changes happening in downtown Birmingham and wanted to be a part of that.”
Chocolatà is at 1927 Second Ave. N in Birmingham. It’s open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturdays noon-4 p.m. The shop is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays for production. For more information, including updated hours of operation and seasonal offerings, visit chocolatachocolate.com or follow the business on social media. ❖