This guide to Turin and the three recipes included come from the new cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight (Hardie Grant, 2019), by Emiko Davies, who you may know from her column and almost 200 recipes on Food52. We're big fans of her Bucatini all'Amatriciana and Torta Caprese—so we're beyond thrilled about the sweet treats that follow.
Piedmont’s capital, Turin (Torino, to Italians), is a little jewel of a city. It's noted, among other things, for its Baroque architecture, cinema, and the Fiat factory. It was also Italy’s first capital, and the birthplace of the Risorgimento cultural movement, which was led by Count Camillo Cavour, a Turin native. The city sits along the Po River, with the Alps in the background—a position that led renowned architect Le Corbusier to call it the place with "the most beautiful natural location."
It is no surprise that Turin is referred to as "Little Paris"; the city’s close proximity to France and Switzerland means it naturally feels more continental than Mediterranean. The cobblestone streets, the little iron balconies, grand piazze, and royal Savoy palace all help paint that picture. But for me, one of the things that contributes to that feeling the most is the active and historical café culture.
Many of Turin's innumerable cafés have been around for centuries, and are still as elegant as they were then—despite (or, perhaps, thanks to) their age. Caffé al Bicerin has been around since 1763, serving its eponymous drink of thick, melted chocolate and espresso with a layer of cream. Stratta, which sits under the arcades of the city’s "salon," Piazza San Carlo, has been known for its exquisite chocolates, sweets, and pastries since 1836. And the luxurious Baratti & Milano in Piazza Costello has been showering Torino in gold-foiled chocolates since 1858.
While Turin has lovely museums and is the birthplace of Italian cinema, it’s rather hard to ignore the fact that the city also claims gianduja, or gianduiotti (luscious, velvety, hazelnut chocolate) and aperitivo (specifically, vermouth) among its specialties. Turin's carefully maintained historic cafés offer this regional specialty well, many making their own house vermouth. And coffee is certainly not the rushed affair it is everywhere else in Italy; in Turin, you get a tall glass of hot chocolate and coffee, smothered in whipped cream, that will encourage you to sit and take your time. The region of Piedmont is, after all, also home to Italy's slow food movement.
If you find yourself in Turin, with a hankering for something sweet, below are a few things you should try. (And for those of us who aren't planning a trip to Italy anytime soon, you'll also find recipes for you to make these classic desserts at home.)
These ancient, deliciously crumbly polenta biscuits (meliga means mais, or corn, in dialect) are often served in Turin’s piole, or trattorie. They are offered with a glass of moscato or dolcetto at their simplest, or with a bowl of creamy, freshly whipped zabaglione at the end of the meal. Cavour, a native Piedmontese, is said to have requested two paste di meliga with a glass of barolo chinato—a herby, digestive dessert wine—at the end of every meal.
Italians know that the best hazelnuts in the country come from Piedmont. Even more specifically, they come from the Langhe region, south of Turin. From gelato to gianduiotti chocolates to, yes, even Nutella, hazelnuts are well used and loved in the local cuisine. But my favorite use for them is a humble hazelnut cake, which was once just an autumn and winter specialty; a way to use up excess nuts at the end of the season. In Turin, try to find a cake made with local hazelnuts, labeled “Nocciole Piemontese I.G.P."
Meaning "little glass" in the local dialect (in Italian, biccherino), this is a rich, decadent drink of thick hot chocolate and espresso. On top is a layer of whipped, or barely-whipped, cream. My preference is the latter, like they do in Caffè al Bicerin. Every historic café in Turin does bicerin, but theirs, rightfully so, is exceptional. Served in a wine glass balanced on a saucer, the cold fior di latte cream is whisked by hand so that it isn’t so much whipped as it is just a little thickened—to just the right point.