Turin: Historic Cafes, Chocolate & Aperitivo
If ever reasons were needed to explain why Travel Gourmet has fallen in love with the city of Turin (apart from it being in Italy, of course!), there are three excellent ones: it’s home to some of the most wonderful historic cafés you’ll find anywhere; it’s the home of chocolate (yes, even before Switzerland); and it is (arguably) the home of aperitivo.
Six of the Best Historic Cafés in Turin
Like the historic cafés of many other European cities, such as Vienna and Paris, the cafés of Turin are steeped in political, cultural and intellectual history. It is said that part of Italy’s history was written in Turin’s cafés and indeed the city was the first capital of a unified Italy in 1861. Stepping into them today is a little like stepping back in time; it seems as if nothing much has changed over the last hundred years or so. Given I’ve spent only six nights in total in the city, over two weekend breaks, I’ve managed to sample a good number of these famous cafés.
The oldest café in the city is Caffè al Bicerin, founded in 1763. I sought it out last weekend but there was a long queue so I didn’t wait. It takes its name from the famous Turinese drink, bicerin, which is a mix of espresso coffee and chocolate, topped with a layer of milk froth (sometimes whipped cream). Here, however, are six cafés I did become acquainted with, all in the centre and within easy walking distance of each other. I’m listing them by age – oldest first! Remember also that in Italy the price difference between standing up at the bar to drink a coffee and sitting down is often big – you might pay around just €1 to stand up to drink a coffee but more like €4 or €5 to sit down.
Stratta was established in 1836 as a pastry and chocolate shop. You can get good coffee here but be prepared to stand at the bar – al bar – Italian style as there aren’t tables. It was one of the first cafés I passed, on walking into the beautiful Piazza San Carlo, on my first trip to Turin. I was drawn to the window full of the most glorious cakes and although I didn’t go in then, I went back another morning for coffee and pastry.
2. Baratti & Milano
Established in 1858, this too was originally a confectionary shop. It’s particularly famous for its gianduotti, a mix of chocolate and Piemontese hazelnuts. You can also buy the most amazing chocolate and hazelnut cream spread (far superior to Nutella – which also comes from the area).
Today it’s a good place to stop for an excellent coffee and delicious pastry but you can also sit down to something more substantial.
3. Caffè San Carlo
Established in 1842, this opulent and grand café sits on a corner of Piazza San Carlo. I went there on my first trip and liked it, though didn’t get back this last time. I considered eating there on the last day as they have a full menu and there are lots of tables outside on the square if the weather is good enough to eat outside.
4. Pasticceria Abrate
Established in 1866 this café, on Via Po, specialises in cakes and pastries and officially supplied pastries to the House of Savoy. I went to it for the first time on my recent trip and had a cappuccino (made with Lavazza, the local coffee) and delicious croissant. It looks small from the front but opens at the back where there are quite a few tables. I also thought that it looked a good place for aperitivo because of the gorgeous snacks in the window, but didn’t manage it this time round.
5. Caffè Torino
This café opened in 1903. Its Belle Epoque decor makes it a great setting for either coffee, lunch, dinner or just a drink. You can sit outside in the galleria and look over Piazza San Carlo or inside, where there’s also a more formal restaurant area. (For more on Caffè Torino click here.)
6. Caffè Mulafsano
I’ve been to this café, established in 1907, a couple of times – for morning coffee and had a great aperitivo there this last trip. It opened earlier in another location. It’s famous for inventing the sandwich – or least an Italian sandwich known as tramezzini. These sandwiches are made with light white bread and have their crusts cut off. You’ll often see them piled in glass-fronted counters in Italian cafes where they are popular for lunch.
I’ve always associated chocolate with Switzerland but actually chocolate – as we know it – originated in Turin when in 1678 Madama Reale, queen of the Savoy State, granted the first chocolate licence to a Turinese chocolate maker. Cocoa had been brought by Spain from its colonies in South America but it remained the privilege of the rich nobility to enjoy it until Madama Reale issued the first licence. The production of chocolate took off in a big way and Turin began exporting it to Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany. It was the Swiss who came up with the idea of putting milk in it to make milk chocolate.
Chocolate was threatened when Napoleon put restrictions of the importing of cocoa. The inventive Turinese though came up with an alternative plan: they started blending chocolate with the local sweet hazelnuts to make it go further and thus gianduiotto was born. Traditionally gianduiotti are triangular shaped.
Today in Turin you’ll find all things chocolate: chocolate bars and sweets to eat, chocolate cake, the famous dessert called Bonet, which is a kind of chocolate crème caramel with crushed amaretti biscuits in it. You’ll also find the chocolate drink I mentioned above, bicerin. I tried this for the first time last weekend at Baratti & Milano.
I’d thought I might find it too sweet for my taste, but it wasn’t, it was really delicious with gorgeous gooey chocolate at the bottom to finish up with a spoon.
Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian institution, which I discovered by chance a few years ago when in Rome with a friend. We’d gone for a drink before going to a concert and I left Kate ordering while I sought out the Ladies. When I returned there were two glasses of prosecco and a plate of snacks. ‘Did you order food?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she told me, they’d just come with the drinks. Afterwards this became a nightly ritual for us, stopping somewhere for a drink and sampling little gratis snacks. You’ll find aperitivo all over Italy. Generally it occurs early evening, around 5-7pm. However, in Turin over the weekend I noticed that it seemed to happen at lunchtime too. I enjoyed one in Caffè Torino on Saturday (click here). On Sunday, in search of a snack lunch, I went to Caffè Mulafsano – well, wouldn’t you try where the sandwich was born! Then, before the sandwich came, the friendly waitress set before me olives, peanuts and a plate of the most gorgeous little snacks with my glass of wine. The snacks were wonderful. I have to say the sandwich – a simple toasted ham and cheese – was slightly disappointing in comparison!
Some say aperitivo originated in Turin in 1786, started by Antonio Benedetto Caprano who created vermouth (Turin is also home to Martini). It didn’t really take off in a big way though, and as we know it today, until the 1920s in Milan. Traditionally the snacks will come with drinks like Aperol or Campari spritzer, a Negroni cocktail. But in practice you just need to order a glass of wine or an ‘aperitif’ drink to get your aperitivo treat.