Those attending the Junior League of Greater Princeton’s Artful Palate fundraiser on Friday, November 11, are in for a double dose of fine art. One comes in the form of a live auction featuring the works of award-winning local and national artists. The other is an edible form of fine art, courtesy of local “tasting artists” who produce or sell world-class wines, cheeses, hors d’oeuvres, and chocolates. Proceeds from the event will benefit one of the Junior League’s community projects, ROCKETS, which provides hands-on science activities for at-risk preschoolers.
Providing chocolate samples that night are Thomas Sweet, a Princeton institution for 30 years, and the Painted Truffle, based in North Wales, PA. The chocolatier behind the Painted Truffle is owner Tom Sciascia (pronounced sha sha), whose small-batch, handmade truffles, made with 100 percent all-natural ingredients, have been earning accolades since he started in 2003. I have enjoyed his chocolate mastery at another best-kept secret foodie venue: the Stockton Market, the indoor, year-round farmers’ market.
Although chocolate is his artistic canvas now, Sciascia has both cooking and fine art in his blood and background. “My grandparents, on both sides, came from Italy,” he says. “I had an idyllic childhood in New Village, a small town of about 300, 20 minutes from Clinton. My mom’s dad started out working for a butcher, eventually opened his own shop, and after that had a grocery, a liquor store, and a restaurant. My mom was chef there for several years, and my father worked there for a while.” Sciascia is one of five children. “We still have the typical Italian Sunday dinner at my parents’ house — 24 of us, every week.”
When Sciascia was 13, he received oil paints for Christmas. “After that, I never stopped painting,” he says. “By the time I was 16, I was doing commissioned portraits.” For years he painted large (four by six foot) realistic landscapes of cornfields and corn. “Growing up, our house was surrounded by cornfields. We played in them, biked and ran through them, and walked through them to go fishing. I guess cornfields represent my childhood,” he says.
When it came time for college, Sciascia, now 47, wanted to head to art school, but his parents weren’t sure about “the starving artist route,” so they compromised on liberal arts. “I combined my love for art with a love for biology and decided that medical illustration was the way to go,” he says. In his junior year at Arcadia University in Philadelphia he did an internship at the University of Pennsylvania that convinced him he needed to pursue something that allowed for more creative freedom. He graduated in 1986 with a fine arts degree in graphic design.
He and his wife, Loren, met in his senior year, married in 1990, and opened their own graphic design studio. “Then 9/11 happened and everything changed,” he says. “The advertising business came to a halt. Even before that, though, I was getting hungry for something more creative. I paused and asked myself, what does it all mean?”
Now chocolate is his canvas. All along, Sciascia had been collecting pastry and dessert cookbooks, and his current collection numbers more than 100. “I never made anything from them, I just liked looking at the photographs,” he says. “After 9/11, I decided I wanted to personally make holiday gifts for our clients. I started with sourdough breads. It was another art form. After that, I decided to play with chocolate, and it became my new paint box. I started out giving out truffles to everyone — clients, friends, family — and little by little it developed into the Painted Truffle.”
After he had nailed down the basics — making ganache, rolling it into a ball, and enrobing it in chocolate — he began inventing his own recipes, based on the holiday desserts he grew up with. “I even was inspired by my grandfather’s liquor store. Because of it, I was always surrounded by great wines and liquors,” he says. His cabernet and Scotch cordials will be featured at the Artful Palate fundraiser, along with other flavors. Among the 20 or so varieties available are Banana-Bo-BannaT, inspired by the dessert bananas Foster, and Vincent (as in van Gogh), which contains sunflower seed butter.
The business combines Sciascia’s artistic background and graphic design experience, as it does that of Loren, who works alongside him and handles marketing, packaging, and bookings. One recent corporate job was for Deloitte. “They wanted to put their logo on boxes of chocolate to send to their clients, but they also have ‘core belief’ words. I made cocoa butter transfer sheets, each with one of the core words and put them on top of the chocolates. We actually matched a core value to the flavor.” As an example, he cites the term “global.” “We infused these with cocoa beans from around the world — Ecuador, Hawaii, and elsewhere. With a little creativity, the graphic possibilities are unlimited,” he says.
The couple’s two daughters, ages 17 and 12, help out in summer and sometimes on weekends at the Stockton Market. “I’m on cloud nine at the market. Having people taste my samples and see our unique graphics has been a boon to my wedding business,” he says. The couple designs boxes, cards, and favors to match the occasion’s theme. Sciascia also enjoys teaching, often conducting truffle making demos for garden clubs and similar organizations. He can be contacted through thepaintedtruffle.com.
Sciascia’s chocolate studio encompasses all of 500 square feet. He estimates that his output of what he calls “edible sculptures” is a couple thousand a week. “The cordials take four days to make; the truffles almost that long,” he says. He recently branched out into chocolate bars — 10 varieties — and into the very trendy, very popular Parisian macaron, those pastel-colored meringue sandwich cookies. He stocks 12 or so at the Stockton Market.
Sciascia is passionate about giving back to good causes, including not only the Junior League, but Alex’s Lemonade Stand and the Rainforest Alliance. His lemon truffle came about because one of his daughters was very moved when Alex’s mother came to her school. “I feel so fortunate that I can make my living from something that doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “My parents always helped people out at their stores. Food is all about sharing happiness.”
The Artful Palate: A Showcase of Art, Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate, Junior League of Greater Princeton, Trenton Country Club, 201 Sullivan Way, Trenton. Friday, November 11, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. A showcase of art, wine, cheese, and chocolate. Live art auction. Cash bar. Business or cocktail attire. Register online. $50 benefits the Rockets program (Raising Our Children’s Knowledge by Educating Through Science), community projects, and grants and scholarships programs. 609-771-0525 or www.jlgp.org.
Follow Pat Tanner’s food blog at www.dinewithpat.com.