Will Garin, Crown
Americans swooned over Frances Mayes’ sensuous descriptions of Tuscany's rolling green hills and succulent cuisine in her best-selling 1996 memoir Under the Tuscan Sun.
Now she's back with See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy, a broader, food-focused exploration of the country that's her home for much of the year (otherwise you'll find her in North Carolina). She says she was especially “knocked sideways” by Turin, or Torino, as the Italians call the capital of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. “It's a magnificent, manageable city,” she tells us, noting its dozens of museums, colorful outdoor markets, lovely snow-capped mountain vistas, and mouth-watering food and drink — especially its famous bicerin, the coffee-chocolate-and-cream drink that she adores.
"The city just ticked all of my boxes,” she says.
Below is Mayes’ homage and guide to Turin, adapted from her new book, See You in the Piazza:
I'm at the wood-paneled Caffè Al Bicerin, intimate, with candles on tiny marble tables, when the waiter slides toward me a clear little glass layered with cream, chocolate, and coffee. Sip the layers and you taste Torino. The bicerin — dialect for small glass — has come to be synonymous with the many atmospheric cafés that are the city's life blood. Flush with regal boulevards and piazzas, it's ringed with these delicious haunts.
I came to Torino last summer with my husband Ed and grandson William and loved every minute of the four days we spent blessedly free from mobs. Where are the tourists? we wonder. They're all in Florence.
Torino: forty museums. Sixty markets. Churches, more cafés, contemporary galleries — we must come back. Again, and again.
Highlights from our visits:
The Food. All of Piemonte is known for the pleasures of the table but Torino particularly so. There are the fabulous desserts — not always, or even usually, a given in Italy (except for gelato). The wine region just to the north, the irresistible cheeses, the ever-present taste of hazelnut, the coveted beef of Piemontese Fassone cows, and sopratutto, above all — chocolate. Not only plain chocolate but gianduia, chocolate with roasted hazelnuts, one of those genius mother-of-necessity inventions at a time when chocolate was scarce and roasted hazelnuts were incorporated to stretch the quantity.
Del Cambio. My favorite restaurant. The long mirrors sending back the sparkle of chandeliers; the tables, drawn up to claret velvet banquettes and laden with polished cutlery and hothouse flowers; the atmosphere of friendly hauteur. Since 1757, Del Cambio has served the locally beloved finanziera, a stew our friend Fulvio always raves about anytime he returns to Torino for a visit. The hallowed dish earned its name from what was on the backs of bankers who dined at this very restaurant; they wore coats called finanziere, financiers. The recipe is sometimes called finanziera Cavour, for the prime minister–statesman who frequented the restaurant. The ingredients include brains and veins, veal, bone marrow, calf and/or rooster testicles, cockscomb, wattle, mushrooms, Marsala or Barolo, parsley, garlic, and bay leaves. Finanziera's popularity in Torino reveals something essential about the local palate: Anything that moves or grows is fair game.
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The Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile. Even if you're not a car fan, you have to swoon at the design genius on display. The emphasis is on vintage Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo, though there are Bugattis, Ferraris, and others. A long-time Alfista (one who adores Alfas), Ed examined each.
Eataly. The original outpost of the Italian food emporium. We walked there from the car museum to have lunch and to look at the amazing range of olive oil, pasta, honey, jam, wine, and other products, all from this country.
Museo Egizio. After Cairo, the largest Egyptian museum in the world. Torino began collecting in 1630, and now displays 6,500 items (with another 26,000 in storage). The museum is located right in the centro.
Museo Nazionale Del Cinema and The Mole Antonelliana. On the ground floor you can watch movie clips in lounge chairs with headphones. You spiral up to three floors of changing displays; many are interactive, demonstrating the history of photography and film. It's a lively tour. The glass-walled elevator takes you to the tower for a view over Torino and the Alps in the distance. I didn't go; it looked claustrophobic and harrowing. Ed and William did, and they reported it was claustrophobic and harrowing.
Via Po. Stroll along this grand boulevard lined with palazzi and arrive at the Po River. The rarefied French influence of the House of Savoy, which ruled Italy from 1861 to 1946, is everywhere in Torino. A gaily lit string of cafés beckons as evening falls. A moment to time-travel to nineteenth-century Paris.
Gelato. We stop at Pepino on Piazza Carignano and sit outside for quick vegetable salads. William notices an old, wheeled ice cream cart parked near the door and people at the next table ordering what we called “nuggets” when I was growing up. We find out that the Pinguino, penguin, the original chocolate-dipped ice cream on a stick, was invented here in 1939. Pepino has been making gelato since 1884.
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Porta Palazzo. Europe's largest open-air market, it fills a covered iron-and-glass arena and spills into surrounding lots and streets. Tented like a souk, rowdy and colorful! Every vegetable, herb, flower possible. What asparagus! I wish I could buy the trombette, the long zucchini of Albenga, the cicoriette, baby chicory, and a sack of multicolored peppers.
The Musei Reali Complex. The residences and collections of the Savoy rulers, and the gardens designed by André Le Nôtre. The scale of the city complex is daunting. We tour the royals’ personal quarters, which are so gilded and frescoed and sumptuous that we emerge feeling that we must be gold-leafed ourselves. I like the neoclassical ballroom best — the gold rosettes on the coffered ceiling with allegorical dancers representing Time frolicking around Apollo and the Muses. The Armeria, a grand room of armorial dress, is surprisingly interesting because the heavy plates often are decorated or personalized. Fashion was as important as protection.
We love the Biblioteca Reale, an expansive library and archive with arched ceilings and parquet floors worn to a honeyed patina by the steps of decades of readers. The shelves hold leather and vellum texts with antique ladders strategically placed for reaching high volumes. A metal balustrade runs around the catwalk for the second level; on the first are inviting tables. The self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci lives here but isn't on view right now.
The Cafes. There's Caffè Al Bicerin of course, as well as other historic cafés where we sampled bicerin or lemonade or cappuccino. There's Caffè Torino under the grand arcades; Caffè Mulassano, with a marble bar and bentwood chairs, said to have the best espresso in town; Baratti e Milano, more chocolate- and confection-oriented than the others but with an old-world air; and Caffè San Carlo, all gilt and columns and statues.
Guido Gobino Chocolates. Not to miss: The jewel-box shop at via Giuseppe Luigi Lagrange, 1. Gianduia, check, fruit gelatine (jellies), check. Also the jellies of pear, lemon, and myrtle covered with milk chocolate. We fall hard for the ganache, flavored with Barolo, candied lemon, orange and almond, lemon and cloves, vermouth. William selects our box for the road. After being offered several delectable tastes, we can't even try a chocolate granita or a cold summer bicerin. Bliss.