Image courtesy of Mon Aimee Chocolat

Having some chocolate is always better than having no chocolate, especially in stressful times like these.

If America has a chocolate belt, it’s probably in Pennsylvania — with the buckle somewhere around Hershey. This state can crank out chocolate with the best of them. And luckily, Western PA is blessed with a bounty of local chocolatiers and unique, charming candy shops. You can actually be that kid in a candy store!

Here are some of our favorite places to do just that:

Mon Aimee Chocolat, Strip District

I know a guy dating a woman from Venezuela, who went here and found her some chocolate not only from her home country — but from her actual hometown. That’s the kind of magic you can pull off at Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip. They’ve got chocolates from all over the world, from the mass market British candy bars that are weirdly superior to what we get here (Flake, Aero, Yorkie), to artisanal handmade items from the chocolate capitals of the world (Belgium). Or, stock up on chocolate-covered dried strawberries, or dark chocolate-coated pistachios, or a ridiculous array of real deal licorice. The only thing you won’t find in this charming store is the cheap stuff.

Chocolate Fusion in Lawrenceville.

Chocolate Fusion Candy, Lawrenceville

This was The Chocolate Moonshine Company until fairly recently — maybe people were reading too much into the booze thing. Either way, their elegant chocolates and experimental approach to flavors are a good fit for Lawrenceville. And hey, you’re an adult, you can probably handle flavors like Smoked Whiskey, Irish Cream, Black Cherry Bourbon and Orange Bourbon. They’ve started making vegan chocolates too, built around the flavors of hazelnut, macadamia nut and smoked almonds. Once you start, you might as well get enough flavors to fill a gift box, so think of who needs a present (it’s okay if it’s yourself).

Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop in the Strip District.
Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop in the Strip District.

Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop, Strip District 

Every kind of ridiculous novelty candy imaginable, from Jelly Bellys to gummy everything — and some previously unknown to science — seems to be available in the towering, narrow aisles of Grandpa Joe’s. If you push on past their amazing soda selection, there’s suddenly a classier, more open space with beautiful chocolates under glass: Grandpa Joe’s Malt Shop, they call it, with milkshakes, ice cream and an old-timey soda fountain. (Or, if you need, say, 10 pounds of gummy worms, they can handle that, too — upstairs is the bulk candy).

A handspun s’mores shake from The Milk Shake Factory. Photo courtesy of The Milk Shake Factory.
A handspun s’mores shake from The Milk Shake Factory. Photo courtesy of The Milk Shake Factory.

The Milk Shake Factory, various locations

Okay, so the main attraction here is obviously the milkshakes. I still feel the sticky pull of the Jake Shake (hot fudge, cookies & cream, brownies), which were half-off whenever Pens winger Jake Guentzel scored. But to order a milkshake, you must first pass the Chocolate Bar, with rows of hand-dipped chocolate turtles, barks, chocolate-dipped strawberries, chocolate-covered pretzels, truffles and more. Because when you’re dealing with this much milk, you might as well make milk chocolate. The new McCandless Crossing location is open now, as is the original South Side spot, and one in Murrysville. The Moon location reopens June 19, and Cranberry June 26. Other locations, including East Liberty, Downtown and Oakland will reopen sometime later this summer, but no dates are set yet.

Sinful Sweets Chocolate Company, Downtown

Looks like we might need to stock up on forgiveness in bulk if these kinds of sweets are sinful. From Peanut Butter and Nutella Meltaways to Key Lime Creams, to Bulleit Bourbon Truffles, there’s a glorious array of indulgences and guilty pleasures here. They’re also known for selling jars of cookie dough, so there’s no turning back once you’ve gone down that road. Plus, they’ve got ice cream — which is just smart diversification.

Pollak’s Candies in Etna.
Pollak’s Candies in Etna.

Pollak’s Candies, Etna

This great big store has been crafting handmade chocolates in pretty much the same way since 1948, and gives Etna’s small, but walkable business district a distinct sweetness. They’ve got a pretty amazing array of truffles as well, from sea salt caramel, to toasted coconut, to dark raspberry. And in season, Easter bunnies. So many chocolate Easter bunnies.

Esther’s Homemade Candy, Carrick

Every neighborhood needs a place like this. We’re talking family heirloom recipes, giant copper kettles, hand-drizzled old-school chocolates — nothing strange or experimental. And that’s okay. Sometimes chocolate should bring you back to your Easter basket at age six, or whatever your best milk chocolate-dipped memory happens to be. This place opened in 1973, proving that every so often you just get things right the first time.

A519 Chocolate
Photo courtesy of A519 Chocolate.

A519 Chocolate

The impossible-to-forget chocolate with the impossible-to-remember name. Chocolate that’s almost too pretty to eat, (okay, not really a thing). These chocolate truffles — little orbs and spheres and cubes — are swirled and flecked with beautiful colors, like gemstones from some far superior dimension. Chef/chocolatier Amanda Wright has a degree in neuroscience, and she trained at the Culinary Institute of America and offers chocolate-making classes. A519 products are made locally, but only available for order online, though I’ve seen pop-up shops around town. This is special occasion chocolate. So if you don’t have a special occasion, it’s time to get one. The pandemic counts.

The Chocolate Moose, Squirrel Hill 

Squirrel Hill’s narrow little slice of chocolate heaven has been located in this skinny storefront for years, and it’s kind of easy to miss. The Chocolate Moose stocks chocolates from all over the world, from European imports to locally-made, including  Lux Artisan Chocolates, which are beautiful, high-end bars like Brown Butter & Cocoa Nibs and Tart Cherry & Hazelnut Dark Chocolate.

Yetter’s Candy in Millvale.
Yetter’s Candy in Millvale.

Yetter’s Candy, Millvale

Yetter’s has been making chocolate for 60 years with the same recipe so clearly they’ve figured a few things out. In fact, they’ll dip almost anything in chocolate, from cherries and peanut butter cups, to Oreos and potato chips. The milk chocolate sea salt caramels are particularly great, as are the giant chocolate-covered marshmallows.

There’s an old-time soda fountain for cherry phosphates and the like, and the whole place gives off an immensely charming retro diner feeling. You better believe that you can get ice cream here — because, why not have all the sweet things in one place?  And there’s even lunch, with sandwich prices that also seem frozen in time ($2-3.50!), and old-school varieties like Garlic Jumbo and Capicola.

Sarris Candies
Photo courtesy of Sarris Candies.

Betsy Ann Chocolates, West View

Another impossibly long-lived — and obviously beloved — chocolate shop, Betsy Ann has been going strong since 1938. They’ve got everything from chocolate truffles to novelties like chocolate playing cards, and even a hairdresser set (complete with combs and blowdryer) made of milk chocolate. Don’t miss the Sea Salt Caramel Pretzels, made with buttery hot caramel from an old-fashioned copper kettle and sea salt from the shores of France.

Sarris Candies, Canonsburg

This one is a bit of a hike from Pittsburgh, but worth a trip just to see this gigantic red and white fantasyland of all things chocolate. Sarris cranks out chocolate by the ton, and loves to put it into unusual shapes, like a giant 1,500-pound chocolate castle — with candied towers and a merry-go-round — that has to be seen to be believed. The shop also has an old-timey ice cream parlor, if your sweet tooth runs cold.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.