Beyond the fertile hills and boundless vineyards, Piemonte has another side – an elegant, sophisticated urban face. Torino, the capital, was once under the ruling House of Savoy, a family whose territory covered a good portion of what is today modern Italy and France. Like Paris, Torino is a planned city, its neo-classical, rococo and baroque architecture showcasing wide porticoed streets and charming piazzas, is a center for both business and culture.
It was an exceptionally bitter cold February weekend when I first visited Torino. Paolo and I arrived in the center of the city late in the afternoon just as the sun was beginning to set. Our first priority was a cup of hot coffee. Known for its abundance of supremely elegant coffeehouses, we easily came upon a warm haven – one that dripped with what felt like historic significance. Baroque in style with handsome wood paneled walls, shiny brass trim and soft rosy lighting, I could feel the spirit of patrons past – artists, politicians and intellectuals – gossiping and philosophizing over a steaming cup of espresso.
I ordered a cappuccino and Paolo an espresso. This, however, would be the last time I ordered a cappuccino in Italy after 11:00 in the morning. When it arrived, it was sublime: the dark rich coffee aroma announced its presence while the delightfully thick and frothy milk rested artistically on top, matching exactly my expectation of the ideal late afternoon beverage. But before I had my second sip, I was treated to another of Paolo’s teachable moments. The thesis this time: the Italian etiquette of ordering and drinking cappuccino. “Italians, real Italians,” said Paolo, “only order cappuccino in the morning. And never in a restaurant – only at a coffeehouse or a café.”
Over the years I have thought about Paolo’s “cappuccino manifesto” (delivered with both a smile and a figurative finger-wag) and have come to appreciate its rationale. Cappuccino does make the perfect breakfast; the jolt of the espresso is tempered by just the right amount of perfectly steamed, creamy milk. But when I really think about it – drinking a calorie and dairy-laden cappuccino after a big meal just doesn’t make sense. However, I still continue to occasionally order one in the afternoon, though always after making certain no real Italians are lurking anywhere at a table nearby!
When we left our perfect coffee bar, the dusk grey skies of late afternoon Torino had turned a dark slate blue. It was still damp. The street lamps glowed eerily into the fog producing rivets of soft, dewy light reflecting on the wet sidewalk below. The mysticism of Piemonte – even in the city – was still very much in evidence.
Toronese cuisine is sophisticated aristocratic cooking. Unlike the earthy peasant food found in most other sections of Piemonte, dishes here are more elaborate, often with clear French influences dating back to when Torino was the seat of the royal family and the aristocracy.
We dined at a very traditional Piemontese restaurant and ordered classic regional dishes beginning with an assortment of vegetable antipasti. Torino’s famous long breadsticks, called grissini, were artistically placed in the center of each table tied with a white napkin. I ordered a cheese filled agnolotti, a kind of ravioli. It came in a simple butter and sage sauce. Paolo ordered Brasato al Barolo, beef braised in red wine, a classic of the region. I especially loved the accompanying potatoes cooked in another of the region’s famous wines, Asti Spumante. Asti is a bustling town just forty minutes from Torino and Asti Spumanti is a fruity, sparkling wine low in alcohol and popular in America for decades. It lent the potatoes a kind of fruity sweetness that perfectly complimented the hearty beef dish.
Spumante Boiled Potatoes
16 small new potatoes (approximately 2 ½ pounds) washed
1 bottle Asti Spumante
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1-½ tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoon grated lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Using a vegetable peeler, peel off strips of skin around the center of each potato. Place potatoes in a large saucepan. Pour the Asti Spumante over the potatoes. If the wine does not cover the potatoes, add enough water to cover them. Add bay leaves and salt. Over medium-high heat bring the potatoes to a boil. Cook until tender when pierced with a fork, approximately 20 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes.
In the meantime, in a sauté pan large enough to accommodate the potatoes, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the fennel seeds and sauté for approximately 2 minutes. Add the lemon zest.
Drain potatoes well. Transfer to the sauté pan and mix well with the butter, fennel seeds and lemon zest. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Either place in a bowl or serve two potatoes each with your entrée.
The restaurant we chose for our Sunday lunch was dominated by mirrors and a distinctive 19th century elegance. The menu reflected the more delicate and subtle cooking of the aristocracy. It was here I first tasted carne cruda, finely chopped raw veal. Piemonte is known for its breed of cattle called razza bovina Piemontese. Because of a particular gene, these grey-white cows have a lower lean-to-fat ratio. Their meat is lower in calories, higher in protein and contains a higher percentage of healthy Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Not withstanding the fact that we now know this type of meat to be good for us, I have never tasted anything like it. More complicated versions of carne cruda (essentially our steak tartar) with many more ingredients can be found all over this region but to me the simple one is best.
My next course was a fried egg. In season this dish comes with shaved white truffle but off-season truffle oil is substituted and ever so slightly drizzled on top of the egg. Shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano finish this exquisite combination of flavors.
The current chef of Convito, Chef Noe, was inspired by this idea. We added asparagus and it is perpetually one of the more popular items on our Sunday brunch menu.
24 pieces of medium sized asparagus spears, tough ends snapped off
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons white truffle oil
Parmigiano Reggiano for grating
Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil. Blanch the asparagus for approximately 1-½ minutes. Remove immediately and plunge into an ice bath. Set aside.
In a 12 – 14 inch nonstick sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over high heat. Add the asparagus and toss in oil for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Divide the asparagus between 4 plates.
Add the remaining oil to the sauté pan and heat over medium-heat. Break two eggs in the pan; making sure the yolk is in tact. Cook the eggs sunny-side up until the whites are firm but the yolk is still runny. Season each with salt and pepper. Slide each egg onto two of the asparagus servings. Cook the remaining 2 eggs in the same way. Drizzle asparagus with the truffle oil. Grate the cheese over each plate and serve immediately.
The last time I visited Torino was with a big group of family and friends. We referred to ourselves as The Gang of Eight, and were made up of my sister Karen, her husband Jeff (the only one brave enough to drive in Italy), Jeff’s brother Gill (my old boyfriend – that’s another story, for another blog), his wife Jane, my daughter Candace (now Convito’s General Manager), her husband Rob (responsible for all the food images on this blog), good friend Nancy Harris and I.
We needed a touring vehicle large enough to accommodate our expansive group and given Italy’s superb reputation for style and design we expected something refined and tasteful. Instead we found ourselves staring at a not-so-elegant van painted in a bright, jarring turquoise. It was significantly less stylish and certainly more conspicuous than we had hoped for, but it was sturdy, reliable and imminently easier to find in a parking lot than something more subdued – and it actually provided us with many rounds of uproarious laughter.
Upon arriving in Torino, “the automobile capital of Italy” where stylish Alfa Romeos and Lancias are designed and made, we became even more conscious of our glitzy vehicle. The bright sunshine of the autumn afternoon only helped to intensify the van’s color. We could only imagine the comments from the citizens of classy Torino as we drove through its graceful porticoed avenues and piazzas: “Ecco che arrivano gli Americani!” (Here come the Americans!).
Our mission for this part of the visit was chocolate. It is difficult to mention Torino – actually all of Piemonte – without mentioning chocolate and the love affair between the two. Piemonte is the home of cioccolatini, gianduia, torrone, bon-bons and fruit drops. Confectionary production – especially chocolate making – was so widespread that Torino became known as its Italian capital.
We were on our way to visit Caffarel, a company known especially for their Gianduia – a company that has been in existence since 1826. The plant itself felt old world, yet its equipment and production was definitely modern. After a grand tour of their amazing facility where we tasted the incredibly seductive Gianduiotto – a combination of cacao, sugar and Piedmont hazelnuts – we understood why Caffarel products are found throughout the world in the very best boutique gourmet shops. Our collective sweet tooth was more than satisfied.
Today Torino is famous for many other things besides its gastronomy. The 2006 Winter Olympic Games were held here. It has also benefited from the Slow Food Movement hosting their bi-annual conference. Slow Food is a global grassroots association with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food and a commitment to the community and environment.
It is a city that offers much – numerous art museums, historic churches, theatres, gardens, and castles – and can be visited any time of the year. But my original visit during that bitter cold, damp February weekend remains my favorite. It captured so completely the magic and mysticism of this incredible city and region – and I will never forget it.