Food

Caffè Al Bicerin & Torino’s Famous Drink

In the past and the present, the bicerin represents a unique and distinctive part of Turinese taste and what lasts through time

Italy is for the flâneur, the random stroller who in the blink of an eye jumps from a crowded one-after-the-other street filled with bars to an empty square. He finds on one side, the Consolata, a Marian sanctuary gradually built starting in the 5th Century, on the other side the Caffè Al Bicerin, a 257 year old landmark in Turin. 

Without any marketing strategy or subtle communications plan whatsoever, since its very beginning Al Bicerin has progressively become a favorite destination for female customers despite the fact that typically, cafés were  places for the men who wanted to exchange cultural matters or close deals. Even the management of the place fell into the hands of female entrepreneurs. The Caffè’s unique location, facing a main religious landmark and close to Porta Palazzo – the biggest farmer’s market in Europe – helped attract female customers who appreciated the chocolate-confectionery brand and available alcohol: the refined Vermouth, Rosolio – made with rose petals – as well as the sweet Ratafia. The fact that it was (and still is) run by women made it even more suitable for ladies: from 1910 to 1975, the coffee bar was run by Mrs. Ida Cavalli with the help of her sister and daughter Olga. In 1983, Maritè Costa took over the legacy of the Cavalli ladies. She preserved the historic environment and brought the place to international awareness causing the prestigious Gambero Rosso Magazine to nominate the Caffè the “Best Bar in Italy” in its first edition in 2001. Al Bicerin is now run by Maritè’s family and with the ladies who have been working at this institution for several years. 

The modern twist at Caffè Al Bicerin has been created by its guests but also by the unique decoration that characterizes the ambiance: after its opening by Mr. Giuseppe Dantis, an expert acquacedrataio (citron-drink maker) in 1763, the walls were embellished with wooden panelling decorated with mirrors and lamps, the floor filled with the characteristic small round white marble tables, the wooden and marble bar counter took its place and confetti jars appeared on the shelves. Most importantly, the café became the place where the bicerin was created. 

Bicerin came together as an evolution of the 18th Century bavareisa, a fashionable drink made with coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup. In the 19th Century, the coffeehouse presented three variations of bicerin: “pur e fiur”, similar to cappuccino, pur e barba”, coffee and chocolate and the version that became the most iconic: the “’n poc ‘d tut”, which literally means “a bit of everything” in the Piedmontese language. The name bicerin, literally “small glass”, took hold when “n poc ‘d tut” was poured into glasses without handles. 

Making a good bicerin is not just a mere mixing of three random ingredients. In fact, all the raw materials are carefully selected and tested before putting them in the final recipe: the chocolate, for instance, is made with selected cocoa from sustainable agriculture in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Brazil and Indonesia. The slow cooking of this chocolate in special copper pots pushes the natural aromas and lowers its acidity.

Al Bicerin became an iconic place and a reference not only for women, but also for male prominent figures: to Alexandre Dumas it represented a contemplative place, for Umberto Eco it became part of the setting of his historical novel “The Prague Cemetery”. Eco wrote: 

“a bicerin was also much prized during the Lenten fast since hot chocolate was not regarded as food. What hypocrites”. 

The bicerin was in fact an energizing go-to drink for those who fasted for the holy communion and needed a shot of energy as soon as they came out of Consolata’s sanctuary across the square. Al Bicerin represented a symbolic stage for artists such as Giacomo Puccini, and also for the political status quo before the Italian union in 1861. It is said that statesman Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, who was liberal and anti-clerical, would wait for the royal family outside the sanctuary and used to take the occasion to go to Al Bicerin.

In the past and the present, the bicerin represents a unique and distinctive part of Turinese taste and what lasts through time: the importance of simple and raw materials, carefully selected and processed, in order to create a magic instant for everyone.