If you had any doubt about how seriously Italians take their coffee, consider that earlier this month, a campaign kicked off with support from a bi-partisan group of the country’s MPs to help espresso gain UNESCO recognition and make it on to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list (as Neapolitan pizza recently did). Since the late 1800s the special brew, served up in many varieties—corto, lungo, doppio, macchiato, or spiked for a corretto—has helped jump-start the country each morning, also serving to fuel such popular frothies like cappuccino and latte macchiato.
But one of the most irresistible and fabulous espresso-based drinks is not widely known or available outside of Turin. Appropriately, this most regal of beverages, the bicerin, came about in a city steeped in royal history (for centuries Italy’s kings lived here), and while initially associated with the aristocracy, it would become popular with Torinese from all walks of life. This heavenly elixir, made with tiers of freshly-brewed espresso, thick chocolate and cream, can change how you think about coffee time forever.
While you can find bicerin in various coffee shops in Turin, you have to sample it at its source, Caffè Al Bicerin, where the drink was created. “Turin has many historic caffès, but this is the oldest [dating from 1763] and smallest,” says Alberto Landi, owner of the property, a cozy candlelit salon where walls are lined with antique paneling, mirrors and vintage photographs. Notables have flocked here for centuries—Puccini, Nietzsche, the last king and queen of Italy, and Gianni Agnelli, among them. Even though the space is small— “it only seats 30,” Landi says—he points out that no matter how famous the guests, they are left alone and “not asked for selfies.”
According to caffè lore, the bicerin (Torinese dialect for small glass) evolved from the bavareisa, a drink made in the 1700s mixing chocolate, coffee and milk. The earliest bicerins had ingredients served separately, says Landi, and there were variations, like coffee with chocolate, but it was the poc ‘d tut” (“a little bit of everything”) utilizing all three elements that proved the most popular, even becoming the drink for the Merenda Reale in the 19th century, and the version that has survived to the present day. Landi says the recipe is a carefully guarded secret, and that ingredients are carefully curated, with special blends for the espresso, and the chocolate “made without thickeners and cooked for four hours in copper pots.” (Umberto Eco, writing about the caffè in The Prague Cemetery, described the bicerin as nectar.)
It is an elegant drink to look at, arriving with a pristine topping of cream perched above thick tiers of chocolate and coffee. To best enjoy the bicerin, you don’t stir it, but sip through the sublime layers to savor their pure intensity. Calorie counters should note the drink is too good to miss, and hard not to finish; besides you’re likely to burn off some of this luscious treat as you stroll through the very walkable Turin.
While Caffè Al Bicerin is best known for this wonderful drink, it also ranks among Italy’s most noteworthy, historic coffee houses, such as Caffè Greco in Rome or Caffè Gilli in Florence. Leaders of Italy’s unification movement in the 19th century, like Count Cavour, came here, as have the city’s movers and shakers ever since. Back then, coffee houses were male bastions where no signora per bene would step foot, but Bicerin was an exception, thanks to its pioneering female managers, and proximity to the Santuario della Consolata church. The caffè has long had women at the helm; from the early-to-mid-20th century, Ida Cavalli and her relatives ran it, and made it a popular spot for artists and intellectuals too.
In recent times Maritè Costa, Landi’s late wife, was instrumental in bringing the caffè new renown. “My wife researched the original recipes—the cakes, zabaione, torta bicerin—with care,” he says. Costa also did deep dives into the histories of the city’s chocolate and pastry traditions, and oversaw a refurbishment of the 19th-century interior, giving this time-stood-still spot a fresh relevance in a period when gastronomic authenticity and Slow Food values dominate the culinary conversation. “We have a big responsibilty to take care of this place,” says Landi.
The caffè is nirvana for the sweets-obessesd with a variety of Turin and Piedmont treats, in addition to the bicerin and the Merenda Reale, or royal snack, to indulge in: slow-cooked hot chocolate; a fluffy zabaione, made by hand; the bicerin cake; an assortment of heritage pastries and cookies; hazelnut cake (a regional specialty) served with chocolate and cream; even a chocolate “toast.” Next door to the caffè is a shop selling more Piedmont temptations, including cookies, biscuits, the city’s famous gianduiotti chocolates, bicerin chocolates and a bicerin liqueur.
Caffè Al Bicerin is open daily 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM, except Wednesdays and certain holidays.