Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series next takes us to quite a historical café — and the closest thing to a tourist trap in Torino this side of the Holy Shroud. Caffè Al Bicerin was founded in 1763 as an apothecary shop and later remodeled as a café. But over the centuries it has remained a tiny, dark place with simple furnishings of wooden tables and benches.
We first wrote about this café for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. And it is no stranger to accolades — winning the coveted Gambero Rosso award for the best bar in Italy in 2000. In the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2008, however, it rates 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — dropping it just out of their top 18 and reflecting an absolutely justifiable downward correction on their espresso quality (though I would even take it a step further).
The most recent proprietor of Caffè Al Bicerin is Maritè Costa, who represents the latest in a series of women who have operated this café since it was first opened by a man. But this café owes its notoriety to its namesake drink, the bicerin. By around 1700, you could easily argue that the bavareisa was the official breakfast of the Torinese — a fashionable drink served in large glasses and consisting of coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup. (Chocolate was exclusively a beverage until the Torinese later popularized it in its present day solid form in chocolate bars, etc.)
Traditionally, these three ingredients were served separately, and the bavareisa initially combined them in three different variations: pur e fiur (today’s cappuccino), pur e barba (coffee and chocolate), and poc ‘d tut (a little of everything), which mixed all three. This last formula quickly became the most popular combination. A century later, this hot drink was named for the container in which it was most commonly served: a small glass with a metal base and handle known as bicerin. Though today it is served in small glasses throughout the city without handles.
Today the bicerin is served as a hot beverage with layers of coffee, liquid chocolate, and fior de latte (€4,50 at Caffè Al Bicerin) — the latter of which is much like the cream on the Irish Coffee at Buena Vista (but with better coffee and no booze). Although here they suggest that you do not stir (girare) it much, if at all, you’ll end up with a chocolate bomb at the bottom.
As for the space itself, it is in an odd piazza — just behind the impressive Basilica della Consolata and just a couple blocks south of the shady street urchins along Corso Regina Margherita. The café itself is incredibly tight on indoor space — a few tables in a wooden, mirrored, cramped room — with more spacious outdoor seating under a couple of parasols in the pleasant piazza.
Using a new, two-group Faema at the bar/register, they serve espresso with a medium brown crema — mottled with a darker brown and with white heat spot. The resulting cup is a bit thin and tastes a little scorched (along with its relatively hot serving temperature). It tastes a little watery too, but at its base it has a pepper flavor with a slightly ashy edge. Served with a slightly large pour with a chocolate square on the side. A highway robbery at €1.70, since it also rated as one of the worst espresso examples we had in Torino — let alone Piemonte.
Read the review of Al Bicerin.
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