By Jean and Peter Richards
How can you not love a city where a luxury hotel harbors a family of turtles in its little garden, a coffee at the toniest cafe costs $1.50 or less, some of the best food can be eaten right in a world-class market and its most famous collectors of art placed their finest pieces in a jewel box perched high on an automotive test track?
Turin’s reputation as a dirty, industrial city is undeserved. Its outskirts may be as banal as in any modern metropolis, but its historic core is admirably preserved. For eight days we wandered cobbled streets with elegant Baroque buildings and expansive plazas with arcades sheltering exuberantly decorated cafes.
Days began with leisurely breakfasts and time taken with the beloved and soon-to-disappear International Herald Tribune in the pretty, cozy Grand Hotel Sitea. Five resident turtles were slowly emerging from winter hibernation to forage in the charmingly cloistered garden and partake of the greens and sliced apples set out for them on a white plate.
Slow Food is home grown in the Piedmont where Carlo Petrini launched the now quarter-century-old global movement to promote and preserve local cuisines and ways of raising the ingredients for them. Nowhere is this better observed than at the original Eataly opened in 2007 in a former vermouth factory in the Lingotto section of Turin — a beautiful, vibrant market abundant with all manner of local artisanal foods and good, affordable places to eat. The first glimpse of this edible museum makes the visitor just want to stay forever to savor and learn about its cheeses, meats, fish, pasta, seasonal vegetables, pastry, wine, spirits and beer. Hams hang like sculptures in an aging room downstairs adjacent to a cave with shelves laden with huge, heavy rounds of cheese.
Locals shop. The weary lounge in the bookshop’s inviting red chairs. The hungry come to slide onto a stools at departmental food bars or grab an available table where the lunch might be fresh fish, a salad, a plate of ham, a pasta redolent of sage or a very fine steak, accompanied by water, wine and a brown bag of bread. Only the gelato disappointed at Eataly. Scoops at Grom had more flavor.
Its newer, little sister occupying two floors at Via Lagrange, 3, in the old town became frequently tempting during our stay. We joined the enthusiasts at the long table upstairs for a plate of tagliatelli with pesto, fresh and wonderful Piemontese crudo (raw beef) simply seasoned, caprese (pasta shaped like a ram’s horn) or a fragrant and hearty winter soup.
The renovation of the Egyptian Museum has not interfered with accessibility to this significant collection, one of the earliest outside of Cairo. It was established in 1824 in the 17th century palace with the collection of Bernadino Drovetti, who served under Napoleon and went to Egypt as French counsul, and added to by Ernesto Schiaparelli. Of over 30,000 objects including sarcophagi, papyri, amulets and scarabs, only a small part is on view in this wonderful old building. The Egizio has a very good Rameses II statue, a rare and intact tomb of Kha (a royal tomb overseer) and his wife, Merit, from 1300 b.c. and rarely seen objects necessary to the afterlife — nearly intact palm net bags still full of dried fruit, beds, stools, turquoise ceramics, cooking utensils and a spare set of dreadlocks.
On the first floor there is a wonderfully crafted model which gives a true view of the brightness of tomb color and the scale of the decoration.
It all stands in stark contrast to the newly opened statuary halls on the ground floor where Rameses II, Seti II (a companion to the one in the Louvre) and 21 statues of Sekmet have been installed in a black and twinkling disco-like atmosphere.
The Egizio is but one of several interesting museums in the old quarter of Turin. We caught the opening of a thoughtful exhibit of Magnum founder Robert Capa’s photographs at the Palacio Reale, soon to be home as well to the new Galleria Sabauda being constructed to re-house the collections of the House of Savoy. A satisfying, if truncated selection of the Sabauda’s extensive painting collection is currently on view in the new museum including a Memling Procession of Christ, a Rembrandt of an old man with light on his face, a Van Eyck St. Francis stigmata and two side panels by Rogier van der Weyden.
The House of Savoy has a long history in Turin before and well after the city became the first capital of a unified Italy in 1861. The story is so well laid out in videos in English or Italian interspersed throughout the National Museum of the Risorgimento that it is easy to overlook the art, artifacts and elegant first Chamber of Deputies.
One of the largest restorations in Europe is underway 14 kilometers outside Turin at La Venaria Reale, a 17th century Savoy palace of excess where the stables alone comprise 8,000 square meters, the gardens seem to extend to the Alpine vista beyond, and the buildings encompass the town. It’s an architecturally stunning site that had fallen officially into a state of “intolerable degradation” and is being resurrected as a venue for events and exhibitions and a restoration school. Unfortunately, management has seen fit to fill visitable spaces indoors with multi-media flash rather than let the majesty of architecture stand on its own. Even in winter, Venaria’s magic is evident; in summer, it must be magnificent.
Late winter was a perfect time to visit Turin. A light dusting of snow brightened streetscapes and rooftops one day, but the temperature was usually comfortable. When a chill took hold, there was always a nearby cafe. San Carlo and Mokita on Piazza San Carlo, Musallano and sumptuous Baratti and Milano at Piazza Castello and slightly further afield, Al Bicerin at Piazza della Consolata, were our favorites for their beauty not just their drinks. Tiny Al Bicerin turned 250 last year still serving its eponymous drink – a glass in which espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk have been layered. It isn’t difficult to envision Dumas, Nietzsche or Puccini seated on the red velvet banquettes sipping their bicerins at marble topped tables on which lighted candles still flicker. We liked the ambience more than the drink.
We luckily found Vittoria Ristorante, Via Carlo Alberto 34, on our first evening and returned often because the food was excellent and Paola was a pleasant, helpful waitress. It was just down the street from the hotel. Artichokes were in season: we had them one way or another every evening, sauteed and spread on veal scallops, fried in crispy batches, sliced raw on carpaccio, accompanying rognons de veau and on fettuccine. Artichokes never taste as good as they do in Italy.
A bad taste led to a good outcome with the cook at another restaurant. When we found a well-recommended place closed for the day, we were directed to its sister a block away. The agnolotti in sauce was tepid; a pasta with squid and over-cooked and un-stemmed snow pea pods just didn’t work in combination. The creme caramel was an unappealing tan pudding in a glass with a sweet dollop on top that bore no resemblance to the classic French sweet. When asked, we acknowledged that we did not enjoy lunch. The cook came out to ask why. He put up a spirited defense of his product and we fell into a wider a discussion about the legendary restaurants of France in which we both referred to great moments in classic cuisine – except that he, born in 1978, was referencing the lighter nouvelle cuisine popularized by Guérard and Troisgros in the 1960’s and 70’s and we were talking about the that which descended from an earlier modernist, Auguste Escoffier.
We have been eating high to low for half a century in Europe and often lament the loss of the tried and true classics to chancier experimental efforts referred to in France as inventif. It’s not that we are opposed to contemporary creativity, we just find that few do it well. There are just too many ordinary cooks playing with too many ingredients in bad combinations. We have often wondered why cooks had become so driven to be so inventive. Had they become too lazy to master the skills needed for basics? Are they driven by a need to express themselves? Are they aiming for the celebrity jackpot? Our Italian cook had an answer we had never considered: boredom.
“It’s boring to make the same thing over and over,” he said. Boring for the cook, perhaps, but not for the diner who longs for real cocido in Spain, pot au feu in France and bollito misto in Italy. Future generations may never know how good they can taste.
One very good Turin spot which has figured out how to be contemporary without degrading tradition is the venerable Pastificio Defilippis, via Lagrange, 39, a sleekly re-modeled restaurant and shop that still makes wonderful fresh pasta. Not only was the pasta good, but we had one the best creme brulées of our lives one evening in its upstairs dining room.
The Agnelli name is as intertwined with Turin as the automotive industry which is still a major force We ended our stay on the fast track at the old Fiat Factory in Lingotto where finished cars once worked their way up a five story spiral to the roof to be tested. The once state of the art factory is now a shopping mall. The track is still there. The Agnelli Museum sits atop it, housed in what is referred to as the “Treasure Chest,” a virtual jewel box brilliantly designed by Rienzo Piano.
Where others seek to overwhelm with quantity, the now deceased former chairman of Fiat and his widow impress with quality. The collection has only 25 works and they are choice: Canalettos of Venice, Bellottos of Dresden, Manet’s La Negresse, Modigliani’s Nu Couché, three early works by Matisse including Meditation – apres bain, and three more from the 1940s, Picasso’s L’Hetaire from 1901 and his Cubist period Homme acoudé sur une table.
Outside, we admired the building and stood at the edge of test track buffeted by whipping wind. We took refuge just up the street at Eataly where, having settled for the only available seats in sight, we ordered a steak for two at the meat counter on the advice of two young diners. The generously portioned, perfectly cooked steak and roasted potatoes couldn’t have been better. The young people counseled to sprinkle the meat with grains from a little pile of Guerande salt on the plate and drizzle it with olive oil.
An interesting conversation ensued. The woman was an aspiring economic journalist, the man identified himself as someone interested in political science and food “because it is important that you know what you eat and where it comes from.”
As to where Italy is going, his forecast was grim. “Italy is headed for civil war,” he said.”It will be between those who have and those who do not. It will happen in Italy as it is happening in Greece, in part, because people are now talking publicly about it and when that happens the result usually follows.”
We hope not.
Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards