The great Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco once said “Without Italy, Turin would be more or less the same thing. But without Turin, Italy would be very different.”
There are few cities in the world that can claim a pedigree like Turin: the first capital of Italy, the heart of the Italian Risorgimento, the core of the Italian Automobile industry, and most of all an intellectual capital of the likes of Paris and London. Although Turin’s history dates back to the Roman Empire, the city has always managed to evolve and adapt over the centuries, and today it is still a contemporary and modern city. By having a combination of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, and Art Nouveau architecture, Turin is an outlier compared to other Italian cities, especially due to its street grid and monumental avenues. An attribute that any visitor to Italy can attest to is not a normal occurrence (just think of the medieval city plans of Florence, Rome, Milan, and Bologna).
With such a high number of landmarks, royal palaces, and institutional buildings, Turin has produced many establishments as famous as their patrons. Specifically, Turin has become famous over the past 2 centuries for its high-end Caffè and Pasticcerie, once luxurious gathering places for aristocrats, bureaucrats, politicians, and intellectuals, now the antithesis of contemporary multinational coffee chains. Although the days of old are gone the allure of the beautiful institutions remains. With their timeless beauty and historical significance, they act as more than a place to drink coffee but as a place to partake in the living history of the city.
Architecturally stunning, a tribute to classical craftsmanship, and most important pioneers of the “caffè” experience, very much like London tea rooms have perfected the tea experience. Among the illustrious customers of these caffès, there have been Ernest Hemingway (who has managed to somehow pay a visit to every caffè and bar in Italy), Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (a leading figure of the unification of Italy), and Prince Umberto Umberto I of savoy to name a few.
Below are a few of my personal favourite caffès of Turin for their offerings of both comestibles and history:
Caffè Baratti e Milano
Piazza Castello, 27, 10123 Torino TO
Founded in 1858, Caffè Baratti & Milano has been a staple of Turin since its inception. With a focus on artisanal chocolate, coffee, and liquor there is no surprise in its enduring influence on the city.
Coming into its modern iteration in 1875, ten years after the Italian capital moved to Florence, Baratti & Milano capitalized on the opportunity left behind. With the completion of Galleria Subalpina in the centre of the city once dominated by political affairs and offices, Baratti & Milano positioned themselves perfectly as the city began to change. As the industrial focus grew, along with the likes of Milan, new thinkers began to appear at Baratti & Milano, with the likes of Massimo D’Azeglio, Giolitti and Einaudi being regular patrons. With its beautiful exterior and interior being to the quality of a Savoy palace, Baratti & Milano is as much a sweet treat to see as the treats it offers.
As with many caffè in Turin, Baratti & Milano has created its own impact on the confectionary world. One of the founders, Ferdinando Baratti, created the Cremino, a square-layered chocolate with an interspersed layer of hazelnut, lemon, pistachio, or coffee.
Via Po, 8/C, 10124 Torino TO
Caffè Fiorio is found in the Contrada di Po, a street lined by iconic porticoes often associated with the city. Founded in 1780 the caffè has since been a cornerstone of Turin and Italian politics since its inception. Being favoured by the conservatives of the Risorgimento movement it has earned the title “Caffè dei Machiavelli” along with “Caffè dei Codini”, due to the tailcoats of the aristocrats who frequented the caffè. Although several caffè have claimed importance in politics, the arts, and history, few have had the impact they claim. It is known that both King Carlo Felice and King Carlo Alberto would inquire in their meetings about what was being said at Fiorio.
Credited with the creation of the ice cream cone to-go, Caffè Fiorio has a unique feature in regard to caffè, a gelato window facing the street. Although supplying amazing coffee, the gelato is remarkable. If you are in Turin for a day and need to get to as many caffè as possible, Fiorio may help you out with a gelato to go.
Piazza S. Carlo, 204, 10121 Torino TO
If Gatsby were to visit Turin in the 1920s this would be the one you find him in.
Located in Piazza San Carlo and established in 1903 it is one of the youngest of the historic Turin Caffè. Named after the city, it bears the sigil of a small bull throughout the establishment – from the bull above the main bar to the brass bull inlaid in stone outside the front door (which is good luck to those who step on as the divot shows). Torino is styled in Avant-Garde and Liberty details, which stands out in comparison to the other caffè’s renaissance and baroque aesthetics, Although the façade may appear dull compared to other caffè such as Baratti & Milano or Mulassano, the interior is breath-taking and vast with its beautiful central helical staircase that leads to the second of its three floors. Keeping true to the Liberty aesthetic, the interior is finished off with beautiful chandlers, tables, and other fixtures such as an American cash register (a once luxury device of the time). Beyond simple visual beauty, the inside is a step back to the elegance of the chic pre-war era of Italy. Besides its unique style, the caffè’s popularity also stemmed from its small side rooms perfect for midday meetings away from the eyes of the public, an issue that bothered some at Caffè Fiorio.
Caffè Torino provides several traditional Italian pastries and Piedmontese chocolates. In particular the Gianduiotto, a chocolate filled with gianduja, a hazelnut and chocolate mixture.
Caffè Al Bicerin
Piazza della Consolata, 5, 10122 Torino TO
Founded in 1763, Caffè Al Bicerin is the epitome of a Piemontese café, a somewhat matter-of-fact institution – not elegant – but through its ‘performance’ it is a thing of beauty that stands the test of time. With that being said, when any restaurant, bar, person, place, or thing has a drink named after them, it is usually for good reason. There is no disparity in this when discussing Caffè Al Bicerin and the Bicerin. All year round, even in the hottest 40°C days of August there will be a line outside – all waiting for the Bicerin.
What is a Bicerin?
The Bicerin is a simple drink made with three parts: coffee, hot chocolate, and whipped cream served in a small round glass, the namesake of the drink.
At Caffè Al Bicerin, tradition is as much a religion as Catholicism is to the magnificent church next door. The recipe is Gospel, processes are the mass, and ingredients the sacraments, in all producing a drink the way it has been for centuries. Through this, the Bicerin is as much a culinary embodiment of Turin as any artist’s rendering throughout the city’s long and storied history.
Although many cafes, pasticcerie, and bars overlap in their culinary offerings throughout the day, Caffè Al Bicerin does not serve an aperitivo, a rarity for today. Instead, once again in alignment with tradition, Caffè Al Bicerin serves vermouth or punt-a-mes in lieu of the Milanese staples.
Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 5, 10124 Torino TO
If Caffè Al Bicerin is the traditionalist prospering on its rigorous traditions, then Caffè Elena is the living, breathing, and drinking compliment. While adopting its heritage, Caffè Elena – which was founded in 1889 – continues to evolve, from having an all-day offering that includes a variety of Piemontese classics with minor contemporary twists to its exciting and innovative aperitivos.
The front façade has good reason for its evident branding of Carpano. Between 1889 and 1902, Giuseppe Carpano perfected his family’s recipe of fortified white wine at Café Elena, creating the first iterations of the Antica Formula enjoyed by many to this day. For this reason, aperitivo is not only available but encouraged here. Sure to win any Negroni lovers’ approval, you will be asked how you prefer your Negroni, with the simple choices of more bitter, sweeter, or balanced.
Located under the portici of Piazza Vittorio Veneto on the western banks of the River Po, Caffè Elena has beautiful views of the not-so-distant green hills of the eastern bank and its historic villas of the Turiniese elite. In conjunction with its wood-panelled main room that is contrasted by the red hue of its antique breccia tables, Caffè Elena is a quant and cosy place to spend an afternoon.
Piazza Carignano, 8, 10123 Torino TO
Gelateria Pepino is the “coolest” of the ‘Caffè’ of Turin. Founded in 1884 it is famously known for the Penguino. Located on the corner of Piazza Caringnano, across from the famous Ristorante Del Cambio (fond of Cavour). Pepino shares the piazza with the former palace, turned parliament, of the then newly unified Kingdom of Italy.
Although Turin is known for its coffee culture, it is with great surprise this subalpine city has also given greatly to the world of cold desserts. Fiorio is known for popularising the ice cream cone and Pepino inventing the Penguino, both staples of Italian summer desserts. Simply put, the Penguino is an ice cream on a stick covered in chocolate. Yes, very simple, but given the logistical and technical ability of a Victorian-era world, it is a marvel. The best way to describe it in relative terms is that it is the precursor to magnums. From once being a delicacy of the Savoy royals and upper-class of Turin it has been democratised, being found in ice cream vans all over the world. Like Café Fiorio, Pepino also has a take-away window, making it a great place to stop to get a Penguino to go.
Piazza Castello, 15, 10123 Torino TO
Right adjacent to the famous Baratti & Milano, Mulassano is tucked away on the edge of Piazza Castello. With its tiny yet intimidating façade, it also oozes a cosiness often storied about in novels of old.
Even though describing its atmosphere could be an article of its own, the internal contents are worthy of the first writing. Located along the back wall, above the bar to the left, is a clock with its numbers out of order. According to the barman, he explained this is a dispute-resolving clock, he then gestured next to the antique cash register to an ornate button that controls the single hand of the clock. When pressed it will spin the single hand around, letting it randomly all on a number. The rules of this clock are simple… with numbers in a series of 0,1,2,3,5,6,7,8, there is no middle so only over-under, an even split of odds and evens, and an equal amount of numbers for each party of two to pick from. Maybe more complicated than that of a traditional clock its utility is of no question. This artistic and horologically inspired approach to solving the ever-common friendly debate of “I will pay” quickly helps in settling these disputes, letting the cashier assist the next patron in line.
The best thing since sliced bread? Making a sandwich with it.
Although famous for contemporary English afternoon teas, the origins of these small triangular sandwiches are from the kitchen of Mulassano. After much success and growing popularity, Italian poet and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio gave them the name they have now, Tramezzino.
Now back to the atmosphere. There is a simple beauty in taking a coffee outside on a chilly autumn morning to watch the city wake up and begin to move. With its sizeable windows and outdoor tables, Mulassano would be one of the ultimate contenders to do this at. Although nestled in its spot under the portici, illuminated by the warm light reflecting from its various mirrors, shimmering brass fixtures, and engraved wooden walls, Mulassano’s once splendid view of Palazzo Madame is obscured by vendor stalls selling Junventis accessories. However, the aforementioned interior is more than enough to make up for the lack of view.
Piazza San Carlo, 191, 10123 Torino TO
Since its founding in 1836, Stratta has been crafting delicious and beautiful confectionaries. Although it may not be the first place that comes to mind when getting a coffee in Piazza San Carlo, the wide array of sweets to enjoy after helps it come to mind. Reminiscent of the noble past of Turin, Stratta is one of the oldest shops in the square, yet ever popular. With what appears to be endless options, Stratta acts as a living archive of confectionaries, making recipes and sweets as they were in 1836. Although it may not be the general ‘tastes’ of today, Stratta remains a leading banqueter and provider to the Italian state. If in some alternate dimension, Ronald Regan was an Italian prime minister, his Jellybeans would have been from Stratta with no doubt.
In either a pre-filled or made-to-order box, candies and other sweets from Stratta are an effortless gift to impress anyone you know, after all, they are fit for a king.
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