In Italy, Right in the Kisser

At Italy's Museo Storico Nestle Perugina, the biggest of the Bacis.
At Italy's Museo Storico Nestle Perugina, the biggest of the Bacis. (By Jerry V. Haines)
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Think what might have happened if Baci chocolates had kept their original name, cazzotti . Instead of giving your true love a "kiss" (in Italian, bacio ), you'd give him or her a "punch" -- as in punch in the mouth.

We learned this and other historical tidbits about Italy's famous bonbon at the Perugina factory and museum in San Sisto, about a two hours' drive north of Rome in theUmbria region. The facility is in a light industrial area (which in Italy means that there still are vineyards between the factory buildings) a few miles west of Perugia, the city where the candy was born and from which the company takes its name.

A guide shared the history of the treat: In 1907, pastamaker Francesco Buitoni and his partners started a venture to make "confetti" (sugar-coated almonds) and other confections. One day in 1922, Louisa Spagnoli, wife of one the co-venturers, blended some leftover chopped hazelnuts with chocolate rather than waste them. She formed the mixture into cylinders, topped them with whole hazelnuts and bathed her creations in dark chocolate. Thus was born the cazzotto -- about the size of a small fist. Fortunately, wiser marketing minds decided that the candies might sell better if reduced in size and given a name that didn't denote assault and battery.

The company, now owned by international food giant Nestle, produces about 1.5 million of them a day. Its San Sisto museum displays early cocoa mills, elegant antique candy packages and the BaciOne (big kiss), the largest Baci ever, which weighed in at 13,1583 pounds for a 2003 Guinness record.

Marketing missteps are acknowledged, too: In the 1960s, inspired by the advance of space exploration, Perugina produced green pistachio-flavored Baci, touted as "the taste of tomorrow." Earthlings weren't ready. But neither did the rip-offs by some of their competitors endure -- Carezze (caresses), Bacio Ardente (hot kiss) and, for some reason, Bacio Fascista (Fascist kiss).

Perugina's advertising, also on display in the museum, included filmed testimonials from Frank Sinatra, but my favorite gimmick was a 1930s trading card campaign. The cards, with likenesses of celebrities and literary figures, were included in Baci and Buitoni pasta boxes and could be collected in albums. The albums each held 150 cards and could be redeemed for merchandise -- for example, 150 albums would get you a Fiat 500. One wonders how many people tried eating their way to automobile ownership.

In the factory, we watched the manufacturing process from a series of glass-enclosed walkways. An intense cocoa smell permeated everywhere. Battalions of Baci marched out of the machines where they were formed. They were showered three times in dark chocolate, then sent back and forth across the factory on conveyor belts, first naked and shiny, then dressed in their distinctive silver-and-blue suits by little mechanical hands.

An essential part of the wrapping, of course, is the insertion of fortune cookie-like messages with observations on love. The love notes have been a Baci feature since their creation, although at first they were written only in Italian. Now they are multilingual (up to four translations per note). The languages chosen vary, depending on the batch's destination.

The plant is highly automated, employing only about 800 people year-round, more for holiday production. Quality control workers smiled up at us as they kicked out less-than-perfect Baci ("We'll take them," we mouthed) and packed the rest into boxes, cylinders or holiday packaging.

The most popular part of the tour came at the end, when a basket of fresh, free samples was placed on the counter. Basic Baci were there, as well as a spicy, cinnamon-flavored dark chocolate orBaci filled with strawberry or limoncello cream, as well as other non-Baci confections produced at the plant.

And if you eat too many? Well, Assisi isn't far away -- a great place to go to confession.

-- Jerry V. Haines

The Museo Storico Nestle Perugina in San Sisto is open Monday through Friday (check with the museum or tourist information offices in Perugia about special weekend hours). The factory may be toured by reservation only; reservations are only by telephone (011-39-075-527-6796). Tours are free. Perugia also hosts Eurochocolate, an annual chocolate festival and exposition in October.

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