Caffe Torino & Caffe al Bicerin

From where we were staying in Turin, it was a forty minute walk into the center, so not a trek we made every day. However, on my last day in the city, I decided to spend a few hours wandering for a final time with my camera, making a point of stopping at two tourist-heavy destinations:

Caffe Torino

Most parts of Turin aren’t actually very touristy. The waiters will speak to you in Italian and menus don’t come with English translations – a risky thing in a city where some of the local delicacies include raw meat, a garlic and anchovy dip, and various fried animal organs. But when you get to the very heart of the city, and guidebook hotspots like Caffe Torino, that changes.

Built in 1903 to attract a crowd in search of luxury, a grand staircase was installed, the rooms are adorned with marble and gold, and chandeliers hung from the ceilings. And it worked. The Caffe became especially prominent in the 1950s, attracting movie stars like Brigitte Bardot and James Stewart.

This old fashioned glamor is a good example of why Turin is often compared to Paris or Vienna (as is the city’s obsession with chocolate and coffee). 

Listed primarily as a good spot for aperitivos in the early evening, and for coffee and pastries throughout the day, I stopped here for lunch. The simple pasta bolognese and post-meal espresso were faultless, but the real draw of the space was the view.

Sitting on the Piazza San Carlo, served by waiters in black vests embroidered with the name of the Caffe, donning bowties and impeccable white shirts, definitely takes you back to Turin’s grand Savoy past. At the same time, hearing German and French spoken at adjacent tables and watching passersby taking selfies in front of the bronze horse statue on the square also roots you firmly in the modern world of the tourist. 

Caffe al Bicerin

The Turinese drink the Bicerin as it exists today has its roots in the late 18th century, and can be traced to one (still existing) caffe in particular: the Caffe Al Bicerin. 

A layered drink of coffee, chocolate, and cream, the Bicerin is served in a clear glass and meant to be consumed unmixed. Its predecessor – and inspiration – was the bavareisa. This breakfast drink was delivered with coffee, chocolate, and foamed milk served separately, allowing patrons to mix as desired. Some would combine milk and coffee into the ‘pur e fiur’, some chose coffee and chocolate, or ‘pur e barba’, but the most popular by far was the ’n poc’d tut’ – a bit of everything.

The love for the Bicerin was immediate, universal, and lasting. Not only was it acceptable to drink during Lent (since chocolate was not considered a food), and among churchgoers on their way out of the Santuario della Consolata that stands directly across from the caffe, but it increased in fame as it was praised by nobles and artists, from Count Cavour (a leading politician in Italian unification) to Alexander Dumas.

It’s no surprise that Turin’s signature drink contains chocolate, since the city has a rich history with the ingredient. It was here that it was discovered that chocolate could be turned into solid bars, leading to a proliferation in makers of truffles and delicate chocolates of all shapes and flavors. Pietro Ferrero, the creator of Nutella, was from Turin, and the Ferrero company is still in operation in the city. 

Today there are many variations on the original, but the classic Bicerin remains a perfect drink. It isn’t overly sweet or bitter, and the the warm chocolate blends deliciously with the thick layer of whipped cream.

While there’s a lot of satisfaction in discovering local hidden gems, there’s also a lot to learn from the classics.

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