Turin is a fine baroque city that offers lovers of good food and wine a wealth of gastro treats to choose from
Turin enjoys la dolce vita while industriously producing Fiat cars, Lavazza coffee machines, vermouth and chocolates. Rimmed by the Savoy Alps, it is not, however, a dull grey factory city. Its baroque centre is studded with ornate churches, royal palaces and streets lined with 18 kilometres of weather-protective wide arcades.
Among the city’s 80 museums, the must-do trio are the Egyptian museum, the world’s largest outside Cairo; the Galleria Sabauda’s royal collections of Italian and Flemish masters; and part of the private collection of Fiat’s Agnelli family, in Lo Scrigno (‘the jewel box’), an ultra-modern gallery atop the former Fiat Lingotto factory.
Turin’s heart is the Piazza Castello, containing the Royal Palace, Palazzo Madama and the cathedral, in which life-size pictures of the Holy Shroud are displayed. But Turin is not a solemn city. Its passion for food and wine provides foodies with a delightful entrée to the city's lifestyle. Turin has donated a tasty hamper of goodies to the world: chocolates, pastas, biscuits, white truffles, vermouth, zabaglione (originating as a health drink) and grissini, those thin, dry breadsticks on every Italian restaurant table, created to aid the sickly digestion of a young Savoy prince. Area wines include Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco, sweet Passito and sparkling Asti Spumante.
A traditional cafe culture persists; the most noted cafes corner Turin’s ‘drawing room’, the arcaded Piazza Don Carlo. The 1822 Caffe San Carlo, Europe’s first gas-lit coffee shop, twinkles with mirrors, gilding and statues. Caffe Mulassamo, in 1925, was the first to offer toasted sandwiches. But Turin’s coffee shop doyenne is the tiny, candlelit, wood- and mirror-panelled 1763 Al Bicerin, opposite the Consolata church. Its signature drink, Bicerin (now a city symbol) layers sweetened hot chocolate, coffee and cream, to be drunk unstirred. Dumas and Nietzche adored it, as did Puccini, who wrote La Bohème for the Turin opera house. With the drink, sample hazelnut cake covered with hot chocolate, toasted chocolate sandwiches or local biscuits including baci di dama (‘ladies kisses’), curled buttery torchetti and crisp, meringue-based duchess biscuit fingers.
In 1802 a local chocolatier invented the solidification of chocolate (previously it was only used for drinking). Chocolate easter eggs and crunchy chocolate-encased ice cream on a stick were other Turin creations; the latter still available from its originators, Gelataria Pepino in Piazza Carignano.
Turin is so chocolate-fixated, it holds a February fair for it, and tourist information points sell a ChocoPass of vouchers to 10 tastings in 24 hours - a bargain at €10 (insatiable chocoholics can splurge on 15 tastings in 48 hours for €15). At Gobino (15 Via Cagliari), chocolates are laid out like jewels on glass platters in strict tasting order. The tongue tests macha tea, Martini or vermouth flavourings, discs of pure Java, Venezuela, Trinidad, Ghana or Ecuador cocoas, and indulges in saffron-filled pralines.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive edible, and an hour from Turin, Alba is the centre for the second most expensive; the white truffle. From October to December, truffle-hunting tours around Turin can be arranged, combined with wine tasting among hilltop castles, palaces and vineyards. For seasonal tastings of white truffles,the chefs at Turin's Le Meridien hotel shave them over porcini mushroom soup, carpaccio of jumbo scallops or warm chicken salad.
Turin’s oldest and most elegant restaurant is Del Cambio, founded in 1757 opposite Palazzo Carignano. Amid the gold-and-white decor, with shimmering chandeliers reflected in mirrors, menu delights include artichokes stewed with bone marrow and topped with truffle and beef braised in Barolo.
Vermouth was invented in Turin in 1786, when Carpano blended wine with 13 herbs and spices and local company Martini & Rossi took it to the world’s cocktail glasses. From 7 to 9pm every night, Turin upholds the aperitivo custom; an informal and inexpensive way to get to know bars and cafes. Included in the price of a drink are snacks ranging from olives, grissini, cheeses and salami to a full buffet at Cafe Accorsi in Via Po. I enjoyed the intimate atmosphere of Bar Chantilly in Piazza Gran Madre, where my glass of Barbaresco came with a succession of mini-platters of cheeses, hams, sundried tomato and tiny toasted cheese and ham sandwiches. I ended the evening at Mood, Via Cesare Batista, a cafe bar doubling as a contemporary art bookshop.
The cavernous Lingotto Fiat factory is now a shopping, cinema and conference complex, with a rooftop art gallery and two Meridien hotels. Le Meridien Art + Tech, designed by Renzo Piano, has wall-sized bedroom windows. Guests can jog along the 1km rooftop track where once Fiat tested their cars. It’s one way to work off the inevitable calorie intake in this sociable city.