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Lovely candy, too pretty to eat

Reader alert! This article is about chocolate. Before continuing, it may be in your best interest to unearth that frozen candy bar, half-bag of chocolate chips, leftover valentine treats or the secret stash no one’s supposed to know about. If there’s no chocolate available and you are susceptible to suggestion, perhaps you’ll save this article until you’ve made an emergency run. The Argus-Courier cannot be responsible for damage incurred to those not heeding this warning.

Old-time Petalumans look back to when Millie’s Chili Bar, corner of Main and I streets, was a favorite eatery. Petaluman Mark Gerhard remembered it as “a uniquely Petaluma experience.” It was run by twin sisters Millie and Vickie, who, he said, made chili at the beginning of the week and served it until it ran out. As Gerhard recalled, “They only had chili. They were famous for saying they didn’t know how other restaurants did it” (served more than one item).

After several decades, the door is open again. This time the interior has a different smell — chocolate.

The small corner shop is Cocoagraph, the creation of 36-year-old Rae Vittorelli who’s come up with a deliciously different way to enjoy chocolate — as part of a photo.

That’s right. You no longer have to have your chocolate plain. Now it can have a photo, printed in edible ink, on top.

“As far as I know,” Vittorelli said, “I’m the only one printing on a chocolate surface.” There are other businesses out there that do something similar, she explained, “but they print on a layer of frosting or sugar coating.”

Vittorelli didn’t start out to become a cocoa-preneur. An east coaster, she went to art school where she was encouraged to try a number of different things including jewelry, sculpture and photography. When she graduated, she went to work for a jeweler until a car accident made it painful for her to sit at a jewelry bench.

“So I took an office job,” she said. “I was so bored.”

To alleviate the tedium, “I began making cakes. The cake craze was happening and I was sculpting things out of cake. It was something cool to play with. My first cake was a beer can.

“People asked me to make them cakes, and I got interested in the world of sugar arts.”

One order was for the Barnes Foundation, a Philadelphia art museum. Vittorelli wanted to make the cake look like a wall at the Barnes, hung with paintings. She created a square white cake decorated with ornate chocolate frames: a painting, in edible ink, inside each.

“After that, I thought, what if I get rid of the cake part — just did the chocolates?”

It took her between six and eight months to figure out the right shape, get the molds and “teach myself more about chocolate.”

After coming up with the name and, with the help of a cousin in PR, forming the business, she went on vacation. “And my phone started exploding. My business had gotten on a major blog site and gone viral — 30,000 hits in one day.”

She and her architect husband moved to Marin four years ago.

“I brought the business with me,” Vittorelli said. “I’ve been working out of commercial kitchens for the past two years, looking for a place to call my own.”

The Millie’s location fell in her lap. “It’s a cool spot, and I love Petaluma. It’s a great artistic community, a good fit for this idea and brand.” Although most of her business so far is web-based, “this is a way I can have a storefront, be part of the community.”

She can upload any photo, artwork or logo, lay out the image in Photoshop or Illustrator and print it through a special Swedish printer.

She uses 100 percent organic chocolate: milk, white or dark. Although the food coloring inks are edible, they’re not yet organic — though she says the technology is getting closer.

What’s the reaction when she tells people what she does? “They’re like — ‘WHAT?’ People don’t believe it until they see it — or eat it.”

In addition to photos on chocolate, she sells other item, including a 45rpm chocolate phonograph record and rosemary-peanut butter cups. She’s started selling those at farmers markets, she said.

Does she get tired of chocolate? “Never. I have it every day. I’m a dark chocolate girl.” Locals, she said, agree. “Petaluma is a dark chocolate town.”

At Cocoagraph, she said, “there’s no such thing as a normal day. There’s always a different image, and I get excited over each one.”

What if, as so often happens, the client looks at the result and says, “But — oh my God, I never want to eat it.”

Vittorelli laughed. “I say, ‘Don’t worry. We can make more.”

Cocoagraph is located at 600 Petaluma Blvd. South. Current hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, though she’s hoping to expand. Visit cocoagraph.com for more information.

(Contact Katie Watts at argus@arguscourier.com)