Thirty-five million heart-shaped boxes, 58 million pounds of chocolate. Valentine's week is heady with a waft of cocoa butter and pheromones, the economic climate having little impact on the Feb. 14 bounty. Experts say a box of chocolates shares the "lipstick effect," an affordable splurge that's a pick-me-up even when times are tough. If you're looking for sweets for your sweetie, the Tampa Bay area has a number of Cupid-approved options.
Toffee to Go
I've been a fan of Lisa and Jim Schalk's Toffee to Go since it opened in its first South Tampa location in 2004. Last October they moved to a new spot not far from Pinky's and other Palma Ceia hot spots. They do just a few things, and they do them well: chocolate macadamia nut toffee, milk chocolate almond toffee and dark chocolate pecan toffee, all from traditional Schalk family recipes.
A crisp and buttery center is enrobed in luscious chocolate and then rolled in nuts, the overall effect nearly irresistible. It lasts for several weeks (don't refrigerate; keep the plastic bag squeezed shut). For Valentine's Day, they offer a lovely fuchsia and green box tied with a brown satin ribbon, ¼ pound for $10, ½ pound for $17, 1 pound for $27.
But I must digress briefly to bring you this bulletin: A few weeks ago the Schalks began collaborating with fellow Saturday Morning Market vendor Donna Tortorice, of Pop Craft Pops, joining forces on toffee-studded artisanal popsicles: chocolate with dark chocolate pecan toffee, caramel sea salt with white chocolate macadamia nut toffee. Not your toddler's popsicles, they are $3.75 each and will blow your mind.
• Toffee to Go 3251 W Bay to Bay Blvd., Tampa; (813) 831-6247; toffeetogo.com
A name can be destiny, clearly. Little Candy Case grew up to be a mother of three girls. One spring in North Dakota she didn't have a lot of money for fancy Easter basket goodies, so she went to a craft store, bought a candymaking kit and never looked back. She opened Qachbal's Chocolatier in 2005, with Candy Case (now Candy Qachbal) setting up a bunch of candy cases of her own.
The shop doesn't prepackage anything, so would-be valentines can choose from large egg-shaped dessert truffles, cannoli, fudges, chocolate-dipped pretzels, caramel apples or — the biggest sellers — chocolate-dipped strawberries. These last are dipped in milk, dark and white chocolate and decorated with candy hearts, offered at $3 per berry and packed in boxes in a variety of sizes (the empty boxes themselves range from $3 to $7, depending on size and fanciness).
Candy and her daughter, Crystal, make about 80 percent of the confections in the shop, doing a robust business when the cruise ships come into port. The past few years have been tough as Channelside shop and restaurant space has stayed empty, but the Qachbal ladies continue to expand their range of merchandise. (Take note, diabetics: They've got an extensive array of sugar-free chocolates.)
• Qachbal's Chocolatier 615 Channelside Bay Plaza, Tampa; (813) 223-5919; qachbalschocolatier.com
City Street Sweets
Steven Ashworth went to the Savannah College of Art and Design, but his real education came at a nearby candy shop. After that, he spent 14 years working for Godiva in Georgia and in Florida.
When the Godiva shop closed in Hyde Park Village in 2008, Ashworth decided to go it alone, launching City Street Sweets in the Village, then in November moving to a new storefront.
The core of his business is a couple dozen artisanal hand-painted and stenciled ganache-filled chocolates in sophisticated flavors (cocoa chai spice or an Aztec truffle with a dash of cinnamon and cayenne, offered individually for $1.75 or by the gorgeous black-and-red keepsake box for $25), but Ashworth has a number of ways to appeal to local candy enthusiasts. A corner of the store is reserved as "candyland," a kid-friendly compendium of colorful candies and nostalgia-inducing classics (Abba-Zaba or Chick-O-Stick, anyone?), and he makes fudges and barks (note: bacon bark).
But candymaking classes may be the strongest lure, either as a kids birthday party idea or just an evening out for you and your sweetie, the upshot being a personalized candy bar and an evening of romantic entertainment (classes $11.95-$25.95).
• City Street Sweets 1605 Snow Ave., Hyde Park Village, Tampa; (813) 251-6764; citystreetsweets.com
Opened in 2007 but in a much bigger space since Thanksgiving, William Dean may be one of our most valuable local treasures.
Bill Brown was in management at Ceridian in St. Petersburg when he fell in love with making luscious hand-painted and stenciled artisanal chocolates. He named his small Largo shop for his father and grandfather, and since opening he has won nearly every award there is to win in the chocolate world, recently receiving his third "grand master" award in a row in the 2012 Best Chocolatiers and Confectioners of America Awards. But even more impressive is his commitment to traveling the world, working with heavy-hitters in the chocolate business, refining his craft and building his repertoire.
The new space has allowed him to embrace new challenges — gelatos, macarons, even sophisticated pastries like a "puff-puff," part cream puff, part flaky puff pastry — but his growing staff of chocolatiers spends the lion's share of its time on crafting 35 to 40 varieties of small-batch chocolates.
Gearing up for a big sale on HSN (60,000 chocolates!), William Dean isn't neglecting local lovers this Valentine's Day. In small (19 pieces, $42) and large (28 pieces, $65) boxes, he and his staff are creating hand-painted hearts filled with flavors from red hot cinnamon to dulce de leche (that last one is unbelievable, as is an improbable-sounding port with fig chocolate).
Brown is also preparing to teach classes on making chocolates and gelato. Call for dates and details.
• William Dean 2790 West Bay Drive, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 593-0656; williamdeanchocolates.com
With two franchises locally and 24 in the United States (the very first opened in Winter Park in 1995), Schakolad has a tremendous number of options for Feb. 14. Archie Bourne, the Iraq war veteran who bought the Tampa franchise last year, will offer three sizes of edible chocolate boxes ($18, $35 and $65) filled with truffles, as well as slightly risque treats like chocolate handcuffs ($10) and chocolate body paints ($13). The St. Petersburg location is collaborating with nearby Florida Craftsmen Gallery on a Valentine's treat: a pair of locally made earrings surrounded by Schakolad chocolates for $29.95.
Both shops will go heavy on the chocolate-dipped strawberries, presented by the box or tray ($15 to $45). My favorite route at either Schakolad is a pick-em-yourself box that leans upon the boozy ones — amaretto, Jamaican rum, Grand Marnier and champagne.
• Schakolad 401 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (727) 892-2400; 408 S Howard Ave., Tampa, (813) 259-1099; schakolad.com
Viktoria Richards Chocolates and Chocolates by Michelle
New Port Richey has more than its share of delicious confections, including Viktoria Richards Chocolates and Chocolates by Michelle. The former specializes in handmade European-style truffles, and the latter has 27 years in the area making chocolate molds and sweets platters.
Michelle Palisi has also made a name for herself with chocolate-covered potato chips, pretzels and Oreos, as well as 10,000 custom mold options, from G-rated on up. For Valentine's Day she'll be offering molded chocolate boxes filled with truffles and chocolate-dipped strawberries (12 for $12), and on the big day itself she will be found manning the chocolate fountain at Ocean Prime in Tampa.
At Viktoria Richards, Victoria Boyko Fulwood and husband Richard Fulwood, each with backgrounds in fashion, have some knockout options for Valentine's Day, offered at their retail shop in New Port Richey, a number of other area retailers and at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg. A square box of nine ($15.75) or 16 ($28) chocolates contains an annually changing lineup of sophisticated flavored-ganache handmade chocolates interspersed with filled heart chocolates.
• Viktoria Richards Chocolates 6334 Rowan Road, New Port Richey; (727) 505-6567; vrchocolates.com
• Chocolates by Michelle 8647-11 Little Road, New Port Richey; (727) 849-7502; chocolatesbymichelle.com
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.
Correction: Earlier versions of this story online incorrectly labeled the photo of a molded chocolate box filled with truffles. It is from Chocolates by Michelle in New Port Richey.