Long wine lists, succulent meat, classic breads, aromatic coffee...all at Turin’s charming cafés
Zorro stalks past us. Hats, boots and mask. He’s left nothing out. My new Italian friend Clara and I clutch each other in shock, then dissolve into a fit of giggles. For a minute I assume it’s the Donnafugata. After all, we’ve spent most of the evening in a charming café, sipping on the fragrant white wine from Sicily. Red tables, pop posters and a beautiful waitress in pink tights. An honest-to-goodness art house movie styled evening. It helps that Turin, capital of Piedmont in Italy, is the perfect city for exotic movie star pretensions. Zorro, clipping smartly over the cobbled streets ahead of us, certainly thinks so.
We’re with charming Georg, street artist turned curator from Madrid, who’s determined to make me eat Sicilian ‘Pani ca meusa’. Despite happily sharing a bar of chocolate with a suave, and random, Italian bus driver earlier this evening (you have got to love how Italians express affection with food), I’m suspicious. And a good thing too. Some intense questioning reveals that it involves the “insides of a cow”. “What do you mean by ‘insides’?” I ask, narrowing my eyes warily. “It’s delicious,” they smile, breezily. As it turns out its soft bread filled with spleen, lungs and lard. I suggest we find a nice restaurant to eat instead. Someplace where the food isn’t quite so, well, earthy.
Clara works with the prestigious Ceretto vineyards in the Langhe region of Piedmont, famous for their heady Barolos and Barbarescos, both signature wines of the Piedmont region. So she knows her wine. Always a useful thing in Italy, where the wine lists are longer than the menus. We decide to eat at a casual-chic café, in the grungy-hip student area beside Turin’s main station. It’s a typical story of low-rent buildings being reinvented by young bohemians. Young and noisy, apparently. Buildings above the bars are hung with red and white signs, presumably put up by the neighborhood’s staider residents. “Please let us sleep,” says Georg, translating the Italian signs.
I’m in Turin to attend Slow Food’s Terra Madre conferences, but haven’t had a great meal yet. My first dinner in Italy was eaten on the run, and consisted of cold, hard pasta packed in a plastic box. My Italian friends are aghast. Guilia, who joins us at the café, shakes her head disbelievingly. “No Italian would ever eat that!”
So they order me a rabbit terrine, a classic Piedmontese dish. Piedmont prides itself of local ingredients, tradition-bound cooking and rich food. The hearty terrine is served cold. Since this is a new age café, it’s got a twist — a chunky peanut sauce. The rest order burgers. “How American of you,” I laugh. They protest. It’s local meat, minced fine and cooked for barely a few seconds on each side, so the interiors are still juicy. A far cry from the dehydrated burgers of classic American fast food chains.
There are more differences. Instead of the classic bread basket, we’re given a brown paper bag of bread sticks, crisp and subtly flavoured with herbs. Our order of chips comes in two paper cones. They’re made in the style of crisps, not French fries, but are thickly cut and freshly fried. The result is warm, comforting and strangely familiar. With an addictively complex texture and generous dusting of paprika. For dessert we share a plate of caramelised apples, topped with layers of flaky pastry.
Over the next few days, I dash out for dinner with them whenever I have time. We eat sandwiches at little cafés with charming metal chairs that spill onto the road. In classic Italian style, they’re a brilliant mix of simple ingredients. Crusty bread layered with sharp blue cheese and flavoursome gorgonzola. A handful of fresh, peppery arugula leaves. And ruffles of thinly cut ham, or salami. All washed down with light, golden draught beer. Or, on a particularly cold day, a mug of fragrant hot chocolate, as thick as mud.
Of course, we drink coffee. Tall glasses of latte macchiatoes. Short, potent, perfectly roasted espressos. And the addictive marocchino: a steaming shot of dark espresso, a layer of silky foamed milk and a generous dusting of a dark, fragrant cocoa powder.
At the Slow Food event, I watch children learning how to appreciate espressos: sniffing, swirling, sipping. It explains why the food is so good in Italy. It begins by taking pride in the simplest things.