Elegant Turin, Bracing Against the Floods
As the Genovesi and the people of the Cinque Terre mourn their dead and shovel out the mud, the torinesi keep a watchful eye on the Po, il Grande fiume, up 4.5 meters yesterday and swelling 10 to 15 cm an hour. They know their river – and that ravaging weather can turn it into “un padre ubriacone e malignazzo” (“a big old drunk and malicious father”). The mayor of Turin has ordered all schools closed and advised the locals to stay indoors.
May the ravages of the past days’ floods spare this most elegant of all northern Italian cities. Elegance is emulated throughout Turin: in the Baroque churches, the majestic royal residence Palazzo Madama, in the 18th-century royal apartments of the house of Savoy, the Palazzo Reale and even in the architectural faculty of the Università di Torino, housed in a 17th-century luxurious royal residence on the Po.
Not to mention the porticoes and the cafe’s. Although constructed over a period of two hundred years, these graceful porticoes seem to be contiguous. The architects built them of uniform height, constructed deliberately to lace together the urban fabric while offering shelter from the harsh winter weather of the North.
Under the porticoes, elegant wood-carved entrances open to late 18th- and early 19th-century cafès adorned with stunning interiors of wood inlay, marble and gilded opulence: Caffè al Bicerin (1763), Caffè Torino (early 19th century) and Caffè San Carlo (1828 – the first Turin caffè to install gas illumination, to enhance the stucco ceiling decorations).
In the original Caffè Mulassano, the victorious Garibaldi and King Vittorio raised a toast of pacification and in fact, Turin would soon become the first capital of the newly-formed republic of Italy. The Caffè’s present locale – opened in 1907 – is an art deco showplace, from the inlaid wooden and leather ceiling to the marble floors. Royalty, industrial magnates, and the theater crowds have intermingled here for over a century and since 1925, guests have chatted at porticoed outdoor tables over tramezzini (Italian interpretation of an arrival from America: the sandwich) at the outdoor tables.
Scholars, artists and the nobility gathered at Caffè Fiorio (1783), famous for its gelato and gianduia chocolate and the Juventus soccer team was born in conversations over caffè at Caffè Platti (1875), frequented by in intellectuals, statesmen and former FIAT (and Juventus) owner, Gianni Agnelli. The stucco decorations, splendid mirrors and marbles of Confetteria Baratti & Milano (1875 ) enchanted King Vittorio II and Prince Amedeo who bestowed on it their own Savoy crest, now proudly evident.
Turin students gather at the Caffeteria Università to taste the famous bicherin of barman Antonio. A heavenly mixture of espresso coffee, dark chocolate and cream, a comparative tastings of the bicherin of Turin’s top caffès can stand on its own as the reason to visit Turin.
The torinesi say that milk chocolate was born in Turin at the end of the 18th century when Princess Maria Giovanna decided to entertain her lady friends with a new drink: cacao mixed with milk and sugar. Legend perhaps. But certainly the gianduia chocolate – that wonderful mixture of pulverized hazelnut with chocolate, shaped like the hat of Gianduia, beloved Commedia dell’Arte personage – is Torinese. The profusion of chocolate pyramids on marble counters in shop windows catch the eye and slow up any walk around Turin!
And the torinesi will proudly tell you that not just chocolate but also the true evening aperitivo was born in Turin as well. The custom of a pre-dinner prosecco or glass of wine accompanied with countless selections of hot and cold “nibbles” (that lead to a dinnner if the “nibbles” become serious) is certainly most civil wherever it originated! And an evening aperitivo with the torinesi is not to be missed.
Caffè Roberto is my favorite Turin spot for the aperitivo where the spread can include potato croquettes, chicken celery salad, sauteed squash, a typical bread called farinate, at least two types of pastas, endless types of cheeses, cold meats and grilled, baked and fresh vegetables. Proud owners, Stefano and Fiorenzo, recounted the caffè’s hundred-year-old history as they shared with me a fine sparkling wine. They pointed out that the Caffè Roberto was one of the first caffès to start offering the elaborate Turin aperitivi over ten years ago.
Tramezzini, bicherin, gianduia, aperitivo. As one guide book puts it: “Turin is the world capital of small pleasures of the palate.”