Piemonte, or Piedmont, is a province located in the Italy’s northwest — near the Alps. Other than the 2006 Winter Olympics, the region has largely been a blind spot on the tourist’s map. Travel guidebooks and TV programs routinely ignore it. And that’s just the way we like it.

For example, in Torino — Piemonte’s capital and biggest city (and unified Italy’s first capital) — you can enjoy a vibrant Italian city with a population just larger than San Francisco that’s virtually unscarred by tourists. Here the spoken English language is still more of an engaging novelty — and not the ever-present drone of invading hoards carrying water bottles and looking for Renaissance art.

And while Piemonte represents only one of 20 provinces in Italy, it’s home to one-third of the 18 top cafés in Italy — at least according to Gambero Rosso. Torino itself lays claim to four of them — three more than any other town in the country.

Looking towards 'downtown' Alba If Lenny & Squiggy lived in Alba and wore armor: 'Hello, goyls!'

But coffee is just the beginning of this region’s story. Despite lacking Italy’s biggest-name cultural treasures and tourist attractions, the area is rich with history, Baroque architecture, Roman ruins, hilltop Savoy castles, the Savoys’ answer to Versailles (La Venaria Reale, which opened the weekend we visited), arguably the best wine region in the country, an obsessive preoccupation with perfect food, excellent espresso, and the greatest grand café culture the world over.

There have been some significant changes since we were last in Torino (in May 2004, prior to the Olympics): far less air pollution (many city buses now run on cleaner energy), more infrastructure (they opened one of their two planned subway lines), and the conversion of the Lingotto complex from FIAT factory to Olympic Village to mega-mall.

Piemonte’s Food & Wine Obsession

To understand the context of Piemonte’s coffee culture, it first helps to understand their unique obsession with food and wine. Now in Italy, everything is about good food of course. But the Piemontese take this obsession to a whole other level. Emilia-Romagna may represent the heart of Italian culinary tradition, but Piemonte takes the traditional and decidedly makes it into deconstructed, modern art. In all my travels, I have never experienced anything quite like it.

Piemonte is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and hosts its headquarters. We ate at restaurants where the menus listed the origins of their flour, butter, olive oil, etc. It’s home to barolo and barbaresco wines. The town of Alba is famous for the white truffle and its annual fair. And Torino is infamous for its gelato, it’s the birthplace of the chocolate bar (and home to arguably the world’s best chocolate), and it hosts the world’s biggest food and wine market in Eataly — an old Carpano vermouth factory that was converted into a kind of SF Ferry Building Marketplace on crack and steroids.

Alena Seredova shows us why she comes to Alba in, uh, a red car Did someone say 'formaggi'? Elevator ascending Torino's Mole Antonelliana

Despite popular local dishes that justifiably sound foul — such as crudo di Fossano, raw piles of veal, and vitello tonnato, veal topped with a tuna sauce (both excellent when done well) — the only thing we advise you to avoid is the pizza. It’s the one thing where they come up average (even the Ligurian farinata here). Most Americans don’t realize that pizza is a regional, not a national, dish. The popular consumption of pizza (as a Neapolitan creation) reached as far north as Roma just some 40 years ago. We’ve been eating pizza in Kansas for longer than many parts of Italy.

Piemonte Espresso Culture

What don’t you know already about Italians and their coffee culture? The Piemontese follow the traditional Italian culture of having a quick espresso several times a day like clockwork. It’s an excuse to socialize in brief spurts; it’s the equivalent of a “smoke break” and platonic speed dating. And as in many other parts of Italy, employees stuck in offices and storefronts can have their espresso shots delivered (sometimes covered in tin foil for transport) straight from the café. At every public gathering place, there’s a social expectation that good espresso is accessible nearby.

Here there is virtually no such thing as a double shot, or doppio. People will order two successive shots, certainly, but not at the same time. This follows the pattern of how the Italians prefer smaller stove-top moka pots at home. And like other northern Italians, a number of cafés offer the apertivo (or happy hour) buffet spread of sandwiches, salads, and appetizers with your drink order. Enough to skip dinner.

And unlike the 22-year-old wannabe hipster baristas sporting T-shirts, piercings, and tattoos you find common to cafés in North America, Scandinavia, and Oceania, they are decidedly “no wave” here. Older baristas are commonplace, and younger baristas are often akin to apprentices. Both maintain generally high standards of professional appearance — including even white jackets and black bow ties — like true bartenders (given the origins of the word barista) you’d expect to see in a James Bond film. That is the grand café way.

View from Guarene of the Tanaro river valley with Alba in the distance Italian espresso delivery to employees on the job

However, the Piemontese seem to break with a number of Italian “traditions” — not all of them are necessarily good habits. Although the storefronts here shut down religiously for a long lunch, a number of Piedmontese seem to have picked up the 12-hour workday. While most Italian children are well-behaved compared to their over-stimulated American counterparts, here they often seem over-indulged and allowed to freely squeal in public. As for the Torinese, their restaurants seem flaming hot while the locals still bundle up in coats and gloves. And when walking their reluctant small dogs (they are close to the French border, afterall), the Torinese often look like they’re dragging a small pot roast on a leash.

But perhaps the most shocking difference of all from most other Italians is that the locals — not tourists, mind you — sometimes order a cappuccino or macchiato after noon. Even with dinner. This would be blasphemy to most Italian rules and regulations regarding proper daily digestion. But here, the sour sounds of a squealing milk-frother — foreign and as jarring as nails to a chalkboard — are not uncommon at dinner. Such brutes.

Given Torino’s chocolate history, one local drink of note is the bicerin. It is a concoction of coffee, liquid chocolate, and fior de latte — the latter of which is much like the cream on the Irish Coffee at SF’s Buena Vista Cafe. And just like the Buena Vista, although the drink is enjoyable, you’d be hard pressed to find locals drinking it.

Once the world's tallest building: Torino's Mole Antonelliana Video screens as menus? The café Livello Zero in the Mole Antontelliana

Piemonte Espresso Quality

So what about the espresso quality? In Alba I picked up a copy of the 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso that had just been published (FWIW, their Ristoranti d’Italia guide is stellar and never steered us wrong). It served as a good guide of what cafés to start with. Along with the six Piemonte cafés awarded 3 chicchi and 3 tazzine, we selected a mix of additional cafés to judge both their best and the typical.

Not surprisingly, their best didn’t quite match the very select best in North America. However, the typical blew 80% of America’s cafés out of the water. This also created a sort of quality compression — with the best not being that much better than the typical. They were quite consistently served with a medium brown crema speckled with darker brown, as if a local standard, and often with a small glass of water on the side.

Hilltop castles and vineyards near Barbaresco Torino's Piazza Castello

Another generalization was that, like Portugal, most of their espresso shots are a touch watery for my tastes — even at the standard 30-35ml size. But ordering it as a ristretto makes a huge difference. However, to ensure fair comparisons, I stuck to my standard criteria when making reviews. Of course, none of the locals order a simple “caffè”. Their coffee order is more likely to be in the form of an adjective or a prepositional phrase than a noun: con la schiuma, bollente, forte, con la cioccolata in polvere sopra, etc.

On the subject of milk-based drinks, some of the places with weaker, thinner espresso would oddly offer some of the best milk foaming. Many cafés exhibit a token amount of latte art, but the cappuccino here runs very wet — there’s usually just a minimal layer of foam. The macchiato is, however, rather popular — even at its modest size compared to American versions.

SMS text messaging proved to be the downfall of many a Savoy princess Gold and silver shoes are all the fashion in Piemonte

Piemonte Espresso Brands

Among the most common brands of coffee in the area, this was my general order of preference:

  1. Caffè Mokabar (Torino)
  2. Illy (Trieste)
  3. MoKafè (Alba)
  4. Torrefazione Ponchione (Asti)
  5. Lavazza (native to Torino)
  6. Caffè Deorsola (Torino)
  7. Caffè Costadoro (Torino)
  8. Caffè Alberto (Torino)
  9. Caffè Vergnano (at least in their 1882-branded cafés, from the Torino suburb of Santena)

Piemonte generally follows the rule that northern Italians roast lighter than their southern counterparts. Contrary to the “Italian espresso” roast profile stereotype in America, the typical roast is medium to moderately dark brown with some second crack signs and almost no detectable oil on its surface (about an Agtron #45, in some roaster circles).

What’s undoubtedly most surprising from this list is how highly I rate Illy, let alone Lavazza. As I suspected at the Lisbon Espressamente last year, Illy coffee seems fresher and produces a much better cup in Italy than when shipped overseas — despite all their freshness quality controls. (Though I was just shipped a can of Danesi from their Northern California distributor, and I was truly amazed at what crema I could get out of an imported can.)

Torino porticoes at night Watching the Juventus-Fiorentina match at La Bocciofila Alba

This also follows a preference pattern I noticed among the Piemontese. While some held local “artisan” roasters (such as MoKafè or Ponchione) with particularly high regard, in general the idea of buying from a local roaster was not nearly as compelling here as it is in the U.S. Part of that could be that the entire nation is about the size of Arizona. But I also got the sense that some of the bigger roasters, such as Illy and Lavazza, made such big investments in quality controls that “big national name brand” weren’t dirty words.

As for espresso machines, I came across some machines from Faema and fewer from Gaggia, La San Marco, and La Spaziale. The lion’s share was clearly La Cimbali. This made me recall the residents of Porto, Portugal (which I liken as a sister city to Torino) who originally called espresso “cimbalinho” in reference to all the La Cimbali equipment first introduced there.

In the coming weeks, we’ll publish a series of individual Piemonte/Torino café reviews and link back to them below here for reference.

The Savoy's La Venaria Reale - Europe's largest restoration project for years Cesare Augusto's statue presides over his piazza in Torino

Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Baratti & Milano Piazza Castello, 27/29 Torino 7.60 8.50 8.050
Caffè Al Bicerin Piazza della Consolata, 5 Torino 6.00 7.20 6.600
Caffè Carpano Via Nizza, 224 Torino 8.00 8.20 8.100
Caffè Mulassano Piazza Castello, 15 Torino 8.40 8.20 8.300
Caffè Platti Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 72 Torino 7.50 8.00 7.750
Caffè San Carlo Piazza San Carlo, 156 Torino 7.00 8.50 7.750
Caffè Torino Piazza San Carlo, 204 Torino 7.90 8.20 8.050
Caffè Vittorio Veneto Via Po, 52/E Torino 7.00 7.80 7.400
Neuv Caval’d Brôns Piazza San Carlo, 155 Torino 7.20 8.50 7.850
San Tommaso 10 Via San Tommaso, 10 Torino 8.20 8.30 8.250
Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo Via Maria Vittoria, 21/A Torino 8.00 7.80 7.900
Ben Tivoglio Cafè Corso Nino Bixio, 44 Alba 7.70 8.50 8.100
Caffè Calissano Piazza Risorgimento, 3 Alba 6.60 8.00 7.300
Casa del Caffè Vergnano Via Cavour, 11 Alba 7.10 7.80 7.450
Golosi di Salute Piazza Rossetti, 6 Alba 7.70 8.50 8.100
Pasticceria Cignetti Via Vittoria Emanuele II, 3 Alba 7.00 7.00 7.000
Vincafè Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 12 Alba 7.00 7.00 7.000
Bar Lo Stregatto Via dei Cappellai, 1 Asti 7.00 7.50 7.250
Caffè Ponchione Corso Vittorio Alfieri, 149 Asti 7.80 8.00 7.900
Pasticceria Converso Bra Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 199 Bra 8.30 8.50 8.400
Guido Ristorante Pollenzo Via Fossano, 19 Pollenzo 7.50 8.20 7.850
Strumia Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 9 Sommariva del Bosco 8.20 8.00 8.100

† — Rated one of the top 18 cafés in all Italy by the 2007 & 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso (3 tazzine and 3 chicchi)