I’ve been planning another road trip to Torino this October — my first since 2004. The wine and food are always excellent, the tourists are hard to come by (you can have an Italian city of almost a million people to yourself), Juventus is back in Serie A (and yesterday started the season off smashingly), and Torino always beckons with so many notable and good cafés. Like my travels to Portugal last year, this time I plan to take better notes about the espresso around town and in the neighboring countryside.

To help me do that, I recently picked up a copy of the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007 — an annual, 368-page guide to some of the best espresso bars on the Peninsula (the 2008 version of this guide is due out in early October). In case by “bar” you’re thinking of the drunken taverns here with terrible Bunn warmer coffee for designated drivers, in Italy a bar is more like an espresso bar with a liquor license. Hence why the term barista quite literally translates to “bartender”.

The “red shrimp”?!?

Gambero Rosso is a leading source for Italian gourmands, with Slow Food affiliations and a variety of publications that review the local food, wine, gelato, grappa, and everything in between. Think of them as a less stuffy Michelin Guide that concerns itself less with hotels and more than just restaurants. Many cafés in Italy also take great Michelin-star-like pride in their Gambero Rosso ratings; as an example, Gran Caffè Belli in Amandola, in the Le Marche region of central Italy, posted color scans of their 2003 & 2004 Gambero Rosso reviews on their Web site.

But instead of Michelin stars, Gambero Rosso awards bars up to three chicchi (or coffee beans) and three tazzine (or small coffee cups). The coffee beans are a measure of espresso quality, with a secondary influence of how it is served. The coffee cups represent a more complex judgment on the place, including the quality of any food offered, the level of service, the atmosphere, its cleanliness, the alcohol served, etc. They are a bit like the ratings on CoffeeRatings.com, with the beans representing the Espresso Score and the cups loosely representing the Cafe Score. But unlike CoffeeRatings.com, just getting listed in the Gambero Rosso guide is an honor in itself.

For some points of reference, here’s how some of Italy’s more famous cafés (err, bars) — and cafés with Bay Area connections — stack up:

Café City Chicchi Tazzine
Caffetteria Piansa Firenze 3 2
Chiaroscuro Firenze 3 1
Emporio Armani Caffè Milano 1 2
Peck Bar Caffetteria Milano 2 2
Sant’Eustachio il caffè Roma 3 0
Tazza d’Oro Roma 3 0
Al Bicerin Torino 3 2
Caffè Torino Torino 2 3
San Tommaso 10 Torino 2 3
Caffè del Doge Venezia 3 2
Caffè Florian Venezia 2 3

The guide is far from perfect. I question how tough the standards are to achieve 3 chicchi — standards for espresso at the high end in Italy being notably lower than those in the States. But while Caffè Florian’s two chicchi rating seems ridiculously generous, sensibly Milan is lacking 3 chicchi candidates — with Gattullo and Pasticceria Marchesi as the lone exceptions. (Milan is one of Italy’s biggest espresso disappointments.)

In the end, it’s a very good guide — albeit available only in Italian — to keep you from drinking “average” espresso in Italy (which is still pretty damn good). I strongly recommend it for traveling espressophiles in Italy, even if you know very little Italian. It is almost as informative as the Ristoranti d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007 (also only available in Italian), the restaurant review equivalent which I recently picked up at the A. Cavalli & Co. Italian Bookstore in North Beach.

Given how hard it is to find Italian publications in the States, your best option to purchase a copy of the Bar d’Italia will likely be to order it over the Internet. The best deal I could find (better than the slow/non-existent e-mail response from Gambero Rosso — it’s August — and their €65,00 shipping) was from the Internet Bookshop, ibs.it (think Italy’s answer to Amazon.com), for €10,00 plus €12,60 for FedEx shipping that will get it to your door within a week. (This from personal experience.)

Bar d'Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007 Example 1 tazzina, 2 chicchi review from the 2004 edition (there's more detail in the 2007)

Swinging a dead cat for a good café in Torino

On the subject of Torino, it has plenty of representatives in Bar d’Italia. Torino has so many good cafés to choose from, the city has engendered an environment of competition through specialization. There the “café lifestyle” has taken on a diversity that is almost unparalleled.

To explain what this means in local terms, here in SF you have so much competition among good restaurants that almost no one serves “Italian” food anymore: restaurants here now specialize in regions such as Campania, Sardinia, Liguria, Venezia, Piemonte, or even Italian seafood. And of the 19 cafés in all of Italy [PDF, 152kb] awarded both Gambero Rosso’s 3 chicchi and 3 tazzine in 2007, four are in Torino — no other city has more than one. Two additional cafés are from the Piemonte region, for which Torino is the “state” capital. (Italy is made up of twenty different regions, each with a regional capital.)

With little margin between the best espresso quality in town, Torino cafés compete in ambiance by attaching themselves to film museums, libraries, the narrow basements of old buildings from the Roman settlement era, perfume shops in a private homes, places where Mini Coopers sped across marble-floored hallways in the original 1969 The Italian Job, and mothership cafés for Lavazza, Illy, etc. They should offer plenty for me to absorb while wigged out for several days on a caffeine bender.