I'm not a huge fan of the term "hidden gem."
In this age of social media where a post, tweet or photo can make its way around the world in about 10 minutes, it's really hard to keep good secrets anymore. A lot of times, also because of social media and self-promotion, a highly anticipated restaurant has a line out the door before it even opens - or something close to it, anyway. So hidden gem? Not so much.
I tend to file that in a bin with a few other overused terms like "farm to table," "off the beaten path" and "celebrity chef." For the record, there are a great number of chefs out there who absolutely are celebrities. However, when you have to tell someone you are a celebrity chef, then more than likely, you are not. It happens. I see it in a lot of places. It amuses me, but I digress. Back to the hidden gems.
One of the first phone calls I made in 2011 when we first started "Eat It and Like It" was to a chocolate shop in Richmond Hill. I have no trouble saying I found them via Google. I wanted to feature them in our very first episode of the television show. What I found way out on Hwy. 144 next to Publix in Richmond Hill was a wonderful Italian family from New Jersey (I don't remember what exit). A family affair it was indeed. Husband and wife, mom and dad. They had run a chocolate shop in Jersey but had retired to our area. Seeing an opportunity, they opened All Things Chocolate & More, a place to buy some sweets and sweet creations, all of them made in-house.
Within a couple of years, they outgrew their relatively small space in the strip mall out there and moved to a new building, also on Hwy. 144 but a couple of miles closer to the heart of Richmond Hill. Anyone familiar with The Hill knows exactly where it is. The new space was probably triple the size and was going to be a chocolate shop and tiny cafe where they were going to offer coffee and crepes. In the years since I first met them, I'd visit maybe once a year, chat with them about their progress and ever so slowly watch their business grow. It seems every time I go out there, there's more space behind the counter and less space out here for customers. When I ask about that, I'm told it's true.
During peak times, they are just that busy. They need the space to move around. Not only for themselves, but also for their now nine employees. You need that many people when your menu is easily triple the size it was when you first opened. That doesn't include the chocolates or desserts. What started out as crepes and coffee in this larger space has become a full-blown restaurant. Why? Well, because they tinkered with putting some things on a specials menu and found it increasingly difficult to pull those items once they were rolled out. Largely pastas and sandwiches, but there is a little bit of almost everything this latest version of the menu. Including one dish that is getting statewide attention.
My phone rang back in June. It was Scott Ricelli. The "dad" in the group. Apparently a letter had arrived in the mail telling them one of their dishes had been chosen as one of Georgia Eats Magazine's Top 100 in the state. No, it wasn't the deep fried cheesecake or the gnocchi with homemade Alfredo sauce.
It was their chicken salad sandwich. Yup, good ol' chicken salad. That's quite an honor.
"We had no idea they had been here," Scott tells me.
"All of a sudden, this letter shows up telling us we'd been selected."
I've learned enough in my time in the South to know that chicken salad can get personal. Much like black beans in South Florida, if you line up 10 people and ask them how they prepare chicken salad, you are more than likely to get 10 different answers. Some of the best in the state? Naturally, I had to take a ride out to Richmond Hill to see for myself.
While I am waiting, I take a look around. The space has grown. So much more to offer. I see chocolate chip cookies on a cooling rack sitting on a counter. More on those in a second.
The chicken salad arrives on a toasty croissant.
"We'd like to make those here," Scott tells me. "We can't. It's just too time-consuming."
I found the admission interesting because pretty much everything they offer at All Things Chocolate is made in-house. It takes time. There is more than one sign in the business asking for customer patience because everything they do is handmade and personally cared for. Just like this chicken salad, which was absolutely delicious.
"There's just a lot of TLC in there," was the sidestep answer when I ask what is in it. That's more than fine. I wasn't looking for any secrets, but this chicken salad is outstanding. I don't tend to agree with a lot of lists you see out there these days. Everything is a list it seems. But this selection by a statewide publication is spot on. You need to treat yourself to a chicken salad sandwich or crepe. Yes, they offer it in a crepe as well. I think I may have to try that next time.
As I mentioned, this is a family of four. Margaret Willis and her husband David (who by the way is an accomplished author set to have a book made into a movie in our area soon), and Scott Ricelli and his wife Rosalie. All four contribute to the success of All Things Chocolate, but the growth and fascination with the savory items on their just-can't-seem-to-stop-growing menu is largely due to Rosalee. She makes the pastas, the sauces, the chicken salad and yes, those chocolate chip cookies. She's shy. Now five years later, I still can't seem to grab an interview with her.
Before I left, Scott gave me a tiny to-go box with three cookies in it.
"Here," he says. "Take a few to your daughter." My daughter is lucky those cookies made it back to downtown Savannah. I had one before I left. I stared at the box in the car the entire ride home. In short, the cookies were fantastic. I'm actually glad they are 30 minutes away.
"Would you like to try the deep fried cheesecake?" Scott asks. I can't do it. That will just give me a reason to come back.
It's a fascinating little story out in Richmond Hill. Not the first time I've shared their success with you here. But it seems every couple of years, they are reaching a milestone, certainly one worth sharing with my readers. There isn't a lot of self-promotion or advertising or anything of the sort. On chocolate holidays like Valentine's Day and Easter, they are slammed - sold-out slammed. On weekends for dinner, they are full with customers looking for some of their homemade creations.
"The harder we work, it seems the luckier we get," Scott says. Certainly not taking credit for the origin of that wisdom, but in this case, it certainly applies.
See you on TV,