Barolo, Nutella, & Truffles
Rome, Florence, and Venice steal the show in Italy. And those places take the lion’s share of visitors while Turin (Torino), Italy’s fourth largest city, is mostly known as an industrial city and the headquarters of Fiat. International visitors barely register a blip on the city’s economy, making it a great spot to explore without a crush of tourists and experience Italy’s hidden culinary gem!
A Short History
The area around present day Turin and greater Piedmont was originally settled by Celtic tribes near the Po River. The Carthaginians, led by Hannibal, took over the area, followed by the Roman Empire who established a colony in 28 B.C.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the region was overrun by a succession of Germanic tribes including the Goths and the Franks. In the 11th century, the powerful House of Savoy began a long rule. It was during this era, in the 15th century, when the city’s wealth was flaunted with a building boom that included palaces, many of which you can still visit, and the University of Turin.
France has longed to have Turin and laid siege to the city in 1706 but was unable to conquer it. Then, in 1802 Napoleon annexed Turin and Piedmont and held it until 1814, when Napoleon was finally defeated. Over the next several decades Turin became a hotbed for nationalist thinkers and the idea of Italian unification. Turin was rewarded in 1861 by being named the capital shortly after the Second Italian War of Independence. This was short-lived, however, and the capital was moved to Florence in 1865. These events upset the locals and the king soon fled to Florence as well.
In 1899, Fiat began operations in the city, followed a couple years later by another carmaker, Lancia. This started an era of industrialization in Turin and many people moved to the city for factory jobs increasing the population from about 350,000 in 1897 to about 415,000 in 1911.
Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in 1922. He used Fiat to further his warmongering ambitions by using the factory to build the machines of war. Turin and Piedmont were among the last places in Italy liberated by the Allies. In fact, by the time the Allies arrived in April, 1945, Italian partisans had already freed the city from Nazi control.
After WWII, the Italian Economic Miracle was led by the auto industry in Turin. Like its sister city, Detroit, Turin lost much of its population in the 70’s & 80’s as gas shortages and competition from Japanese manufacturers decimated the car industry. In 2006, Turin hosted the Winter Olympics, significantly raising the city’s international profile. Recently, the population is again on the upswing, mainly due to a vibrant immigrant population, many of whom are from Morocco and Northern Africa.
Foodie Turin & Alba
If I had to pick a gastronomy capital of Italy, it would be Turin. I know, that’s high praise, especially with culinary gems like Rome, Tuscany, Bologna, and Naples vying for well-deserved recognition. But, there is so much to recommend Turin, from birthing the Slow Food Movement, to the White Truffles from nearby Alba, to the wine region that produces some of world’s greatest reds, that it’s hard to think of place that could top Turin.
Slow Food Movement
In 1986, Carlo Petrini, a political activist from Bra in Piedmont, protested a proposed McDonald’s restaurant that was to be built near the Spanish Steps in Rome. From this, Petrini started the Slow Food Movement, a worldwide organization that promotes local and traditional food while opposing fast food.
Every two years, Terra Madre holds the Slow Food Festival in Turin. Festival goers enjoy Guest Speakers, dinners, and special events all over the city.
In Pollenzo, a suburb of Petrini’s hometown of Bra, not far from Turin, he opened the University of Gastronomic Sciences in 2004 to further his work in Slow Food and nutrition. A second campus was opened in 2005 in Colorno, near Bologna.
One of the best Slow Food restaurants in the city is Consorzio. Their tasting menu is just 36€ for four courses and the a la carte menu is also a good value. When truffles are in season, the owner’s father often supplies the rare fungi to the restaurant.
I’ve been fascinated with truffles for years. The mysterious little fungi grow in symbiosis with the roots of trees (mostly oak and hazelnut) under precise conditions. In the past few decades humans have started to unlock ways to commercially cultivate black truffles, but they have yet to figure out the secret of the White, or Alba, Truffle.
My interest in truffles came to a crescendo when we first visited Istria, Croatia in 2011. We happened to be there during truffle season and stumbled upon a wonderful Truffle Festival is the town of Buzet.
During our trip, truffles were so plentiful that it seemed like we were having them for every meal. Shaved on eggs for breakfast, with butter and pasta for lunch, and on ravioli with cream sauce for dinner. Best of all, when in season in Istria, truffles are affordable. The whole experience was so impactful that I set my first novel “Truffle Hunt” in Istria and took some of the experiences from our trip and put them in the book.
Yes, there are white truffles in Istria, but the most famous white fungi grow in the forests around Alba, Italy, about an hour from Turin. Alba is so famous for it’s truffles that it has an annual truffle festival that culminates with a truffle auction.
If you visit Piedmont, including Alba and Turin, during truffle season, about September through December, you’ll find that many restaurants have truffles on the menu. They’re also considerably more expensive than the truffles you’ll find in Croatia. But, the experience of having truffles shaved on pasta by a waitperson as the musky aroma wafts over the table is something you won’t soon forget.
In Alba, truffle shops also sell whole truffles and truffle products, like truffle puree. The pricey underground lumps are displayed on black cloth like expensive jewels, which in one way, they are.
However, it is important to be careful when buying truffles. Fraud is rampant in the truffle trade. Black truffles from Spain, Greece, Croatia, and even China are labeled as Italian truffles by unscrupulous vendors. White truffles are also sometimes mislabeled. And, it’s relatively easy to commit this truffle deception since most truffle hunters operate on the honor system as to the provenance of their finds.
Chocolate and Hazelnuts
Turin is the unsung chocolate mecca of Europe simply because this is the home of the iconic sweet mixture of Chocolate and Hazelnuts. These two ingredients were first combined during the time of Napoleon when cocoa from South America was difficult to obtain because of the Imperialist ruler’s war with Spain. As a result, chocolate makers in Turin tried to stretch the little cocoa they could get their hands on. The most popular additive became Hazelnuts, which were in abundant supply.
Gianduja was one of the characters in the Commedia dell’arte or Italian Comedy, an art form that rose to prominence in the 16th century. Gianduja was a happy-go-lucky peasant who enjoyed drinking and chasing women and was best known for his tri-cornered hat.
Gianduiotto, named after this lusty drunk character, is a candy made of chocolate and hazelnut paste. It is triangular shaped, taking its inspiration from Gianduja’s hat.
There are commercial varieties of Gianduiotto available in grocery stores or souvenir shops, but the shop called Guido Gobino is something special. The “Giandujotto King” makes lots of high-end chocolates, all worth trying.
Peyrano is also a must-visit when in Turin. They also make an excellent Giandujotto. And, they make a little chocolate filled with grappa! My kinda place!
There can be no talk about the magic mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts without mentioning the behemoth that is Nutella. The creamy choc-haz spread is ubiquitous in homes all over the world, especially those with children. Nutella is so popular, in fact, that the product uses about 25% of the world’s hazelnut supply.
Nutella was invented in 1964 by Michele Ferrero for his father’s chocolate company Ferrero in Alba, Italy. The spread was an improvement on his father’s chocolate hazelnut block, which he began selling in 1946. Today, Ferrero SpA, the company that makes Nutella is a multibillion dollar corporation and the second biggest chocolate producer in the world. There is even a street and piazza with a modern water feature named after Michele Ferrero.
While you can get Nutella in any American grocery store, the product is not without controversy. Nutella is one of the largest users of palm oil in the world. The worldwide demand for palm oil has led to unchecked deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, causing environmental devastation including threatening of the habitat of endangered species like Sumatran Orangutans, Elephants, and Rhinos. Clearing forest for palm oil plantations drastically increases water pollution and air pollution.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil looks to certify sustainable palm oil production, but seem to be fighting a losing battle. Sustainable alternatives to palm oil, like algae oil, fungi oil & yeast oil, which have a much lower environmental impact, have been developed but have been deemed too costly, so far, by most companies using palm oil.
Baci di Dama
Baci di Dama translates to “Kiss of a Lady” because the the two cookies sandwiching a layer of chocolate resemble a woman’s puckered lips.
The traditional Baci di Dama has two tiny hazelnut cookies with a layer of dark chocolate inside. You’ll also find Baci di Dama with chocolate hazelnut spread.
Almost any cafe in Turin will have Baci di Dama, but I like to go to Al Bicerin so I can have my cookies with my favorite drink, the Bicerin.
Each region, and often each town, in Italy has its own distinctive pasta. In Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, it’s all about Orecchiette. Near Rome you’ll get Bucatini which is a hollow spaghetti. And in Abruzzo, there’s a pasta called Spaghetti alla Chitarra; pasta cut into long strands using a Chitarra, giving the pasta a square, rather than round shape.
Then there’s Peidmont’s Agnolotti. Like its cousin Ravioli, Agnolotti is a stuffed pasta. But, instead of putting the filling between two sheets of pasta, the Agnolotti filling is placed on a single sheet of pasta and folded over. Another difference between Ravioli and Agnolotti is that the former is square while the latter is (usually) rectangular.
Throughout Piedmont there are slight regional differences to the Agnolotti. In Monferrato, the pasta is closed with a severe pinch, giving the Agnolotti its distinctive ruffled edge. While in Calliano, near Asti, the Agnolotti is filled with donkey meat.
There’s also a smaller version of the pasta called Agnolotti del Plin. A great spot to try this version of the dish is at Scannabue where Agnolotti del Plin, served in brown butter, is on the tasting menu. Agnolotti is often served in a ragu, but I find the traditional butter and sage (and broth) version the best.
Usually Agnolotti is filled with meat, but Turin has become quite vegetarian friendly recently. Mezzaluna is a vegan restaurant that serves meat-free Agnolotti al Plin filled with cashew cheese, walnuts, and thyme.
Rice has been grown in Italy for almost 700 years, but Risotto, the creamy rice dish of the peninsula is much younger. Risotta was first made in Milan about 200 years ago, and the rice varieties that are most associated with the dish are only about 100 years old.
Short grain rice is used to make Risotto because it absorbs liquid better and releases more starch, which gives the Risotto its creamy texture. There are hundreds of ways to prepare the dish, but most start with sauteing onions and garlic in olive oil and/or butter, then adding rice, and then a little wine. Warm stock (meat, fish, or veggie) is slowly added while the rice is constantly stirred and when the correct consistency is reached, some butter and grated cheese is added. Traditionally, Saffron was added to the stock to give the Risotto a yellowish-straw color.
Some people like their Risotto looser with some liquid still in the bowl, while others prefer something drier.
There are so many Risotto recipes, it would be impossible to list them all. But, some of the most popular have seafood, or squash, or vegetables (especially peas).
In Piedmont, Risotto al Funghi is made with mushrooms. They also have a wonderfully rich and hearty dish called Risotto al Barolo made with the robust wine of Piedmont, Barolo. This Risotto is unique in that the Barolo is a red wine, rather than the white that is usually an ingredient in most recipes. To complement the red wine, Borlotti Beans (aka Cranberry Beans) are often added.
Karen and I had one of our most memorable meals ever at Scannabue in Turin. Their Risotto with balsamic reduction was one for the ages. They also serve a black truffle Risotto when in season. And, the prices are very reasonable, especially considering the quality of the food. Highly recommended.
Ricotta means cooked twice and that’s because the cheese is literally cooked twice. First, the milk is heated to separate the whey, then the whey is cooked and rennet is added.
Until recently, there was only one kind of Ricotta Cheese in U.S. grocery stores and it came in a plastic tub. Now, many grocery stores and most gourmet shops offer different varieties of Ricotta, including the popular Ricotta Salata.
In Italy, there are countless kinds of Ricotta Cheese, including one of my favorites; Sicily’s Tricotta.
In Piedmont, Ricotta Cheese is called Seirass and can be made from cow’s or sheep’s milk. The cheese takes the shape of a cone or a basket depending on how it was made and aged.
The youngest version is called Seirass di Latte and pairs nicely with jams & jellies or with a little bit on a Grissini (Breadstick). Seirass del Fin wrapped in fresh hay, cut from the Alpine meadows of Piedmont, and aged to give the cheese a slightly yellow color and a more intense aroma. Seirass del Fen can also be enjoyed with jams & jellies or fresh fruit (like blueberries) but it’s an excellent filling for Agnolotti.
To find Seirass, go to one of Eataly or one of the city’s fine outdoor markets. Or, enjoy a wonderful gastronomic experience and visit Latteria Bera. Nonna Romola started the shop in 1958, supplying local Torinese with milk, eggs, honey, and cheese. Today, gourmands visit Latteria Bera for their incredible cheese counter and other typical Piedmontese products.
Toma is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese made in Piedmont that is similar to the French Tomme cheese. Toma’s color and flavor can vary with the kind of milk used (full fat or skim) and how long it is aged. With longer aging, the flavor intensifies.
Whole fat Toma is good with Piedmontese Risottos or as a filling in Agnolotti, while low fat Toma can be enjoyed with bread and jam or honey.
Breadsticks were said to be invented in Piedmont near Turin in the 17th century. Supposedly, a baker made them for Victor Amadeus II, the Duke of Savoy, who had digestive problems as a child and found the Grissini easier to digest.
Grissini are usually very long and pencil-thin, making them quite crispy. However, wider Grissini are sometimes served in Turin as well. Grissini are normally served instead of bread in Turin along with some olive oil for dipping.
These long baton-shaped bits of carb goodness can be baked with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or even olives. There are two methods of making Grissini; rubatà and stirato. Rubatà means “rolled” and these are the best kind because they are hand rolled, which gives the Grissini their twisted look. Stirato means “stretched” and these Grissini are usually commercially made in a factory.
When you taste Rubatà Grissini, you’ll realize what you were missing by eating those breadsticks sealed in plastic bags in Italian-American restaurants.
Farinata is a thin pancake made of chicpeas and baked in an oven. The Farinata is very similar to the French Socca. Farinata likely originated in Genoa, Italy, but no one is 100% sure of it’s origin. Even Roman soldiers probably made a version 2,000 years ago, so the history is hazy, at best. I wrote about Farinata in my post about the Cinque Terre where it is popular as well.
In the early 1900’s, English Tea Sandwiches, those little white bread sandwiches, often buttered with cucumbers inside, were all the rage. In 1925, Caffè Mulassano came up with their own take, a sandwich served on soft white bread with various fillings, though the prosciutto and tuna are especially popular. A few years later, Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio gave the sandwich its name, Tramezzino, or “little in-between.”
Of course, today you can find Tramezzino in any cafe or train station in Italy, but visiting the original Caffè Mulassano for an espresso and Tramezzino is a lot of fun.
Heat olive oil, add chopped anchovies, and garlic (and sometimes milk or cream) and you get the traditional Turin dish of Bagna Cauda. Similar to fondue, Bagna Cauda is placed in a small clay bowl with a candle underneath to keep the sauce warm. Veggies like cabbage, peppers, carrots, and Jerusalem artichokes are dipped in the Bagna Cauda.
Bagna Cauda is usually served around Christmas and New Year’s and the antipasti is so popular there’s even a Bagna Cauda Day in Asti in late November.
Drinking in Turin & Alba
In the strictest sense, Aperitivo is a drink. Usually a bitter drink like and Aperol Spritz or Negroni. But, in general terms, Aperitivo is more of a cultural tradition.
In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented Vermouth in Turin. (See my post about Vermouth in Madrid). The fortified wine infused with herbs quickly became popular as an aperitif; a drink used to stimulate the appetite. Two companies in Turin, Martini & Rossi and Cinzano manufactured Vermouth, increasing its popularity.
With Vermouth cocktails opening up the appetites of the Torinese, food was needed. So bars began offering snacks with their drinks and the Aperitivo was born.
Today, the Aperitivo is offered in cocktail bars all over Italy, but Turin is still the best place it experience it. Here, you’ll find places setting out huge spreads of food to go with their drinks. And, bitter cocktails like the Aperol Spritz or Negroni aren’t the only ones on offer. It’s common for folks to have a beer or a glass of wine as their Aperitivo.
The time of day when the Aperitivo is offered vary, but normally run from about 6-9pm, or so. Some places will let you have some snacks for the price of a drink, usually anywhere from € 5-15. Other places will have an additional charge for access to the food. At some places a giant buffet is set out, while at others a few snacks are laid out on the bar. And, of course, the quality of the food varies wildly from place to place. At some spots, the food seems almost an afterthought and is quite unappetizing, while at other places they go all-out.
New places can pop up, so it pays to ask a local for their favorite. One thing to keep in mind is that Aperitivo is not the same thing as meal service. Don’t expect servers to wait on you like they would if you came in for a sit down meal. This is a much more casual experience. I especially like the Aperitivo because it is an inexpensive social event. Everyone is out chatting and having a cocktail and there’s usually so much food that I’m not hungry for dinner!
For a different experience, how about Aperitivo in an 18th century palace that doubles as a perfumery? Wind through the rooms of scented candles, furniture, and jewelry at The Floris House to the cafe where they serve elegant cocktails and a nice, but a bit pricey, Aperitivo.
A couple other good places for Aperitivo are Cafe Fiorio, which makes a terrific Bicerin and Caffè Mulassano, the art deco cafe where the Tramezzino sandwich was born.
My all-time favorite non-alcoholic drink in all of Europe is the Bicerin. In the local Piedmont dialect, Bicerin means “small glass.”
The drink is based on something called the Bavarèisa, a 17th century beverage made of coffee, cream, and chocolate. Caffe al Bicerin began offering each ingredient of the Bavarèisa separately, with the coffee, cream, and chocolate each offered in its own cup.
Then, in 1804, the preparation changed into what is now known as the Bicerin. The drinking chocolate, coffee, and cream were carefully poured into a cup to make three distinct layers, rather than something with all three mixed together.
The Bicerin became incredibly popular in Turin, especially with parishioners leaving services at the Sanctuary of the Consolata, which is just across the Piazza della Consolata from Caffe al Bicerin.
The elegant Caffe al Bicerin still makes a fabulous Bicerin, which you can get with cookies like the Turin specialty Baci di Dama (Kiss of a Lady). The cafe is tiny, with only a few tables, so waiting outside in the chilly winter air of Turin is likely, and only adds to the comfort of the Bicerin when you finally get a seat.
The Bicerin is served in a clear mug (to see the layers) and a spoon, but do not stir it! That would ruin the best part of the Bicerin, drinking it slowly so you a taste of each ingredient, one at a time, with each sip.
Another fine place to get a Bicerin is Cafe Fiorio. The cafe first opened in 1780 and was gathering place for writers, politicians, and intellectuals who discussed the important ideas around Italian unification. So important was this place that politicians would often gauge public opinion by asking “what is being said at Fiorio?”
Barolo, “The wine of king, the king of wines,” is Italy’s most prestigious, and expensive, wine. Grown in the Langhe region of Piedmont, Barolo is made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes. Nebbiolo grapes are the first to break bud in the spring and one of the last grapes to ripen, making Barolo a rather difficult wine to make.
Because Nebbiolo grapes are harvested so late, in late October, they are often picked when not completely ripe. Traditionally, this had led to highly tannic and acidic wines that require a great deal of aging, both in the barrel and the bottle, before drinking. In fact, Barolo must age for two years in oak and one year in the bottle to be classified as DOCG and three years in oak and two in the bottle for a Riserva designation. Some high-end bottles of Barolo age for 10-15 years or more to reach their fullest potential.
Wine drinkers preferences have changed in the last 40 years or so, shifting away from aged wines high in tannins to younger wines that are fruit forward. This has led to changes in how Barolo is produced.
Today, the grapes are fermented for shorter periods and at cooler temperatures with heat applied at the end to encourage malolactic fermentation. Shorter maceration periods gives the wine a more fruit forward flavor while the malolactic fermentation cuts down on harsh tannins.
Visiting the Serralunga Valley and the Central Valley Barolo producing areas is a fun way to spend a day, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, hiring a guide can be cost prohibitive. Tours start at $400 and go up (significantly) from there. To my mind, the only way to make the cost worth it is to have a crew of 5-8 people to split the cost of the tour. Remember, that only includes visiting the wineries and tastings, buying bottles is extra.
Second, don’t expect to drop in at a winery for a tasting. You’ll need to make an appointment. Be sure to ask about any tasting fees, and if those fees are waived with the purchase of a bottle. You don’t want to get a surprise. The nice thing is that many wineries are family run operations and the people hosting the tour and tasting are very friendly and knowledgeable.
But, the area is changing. A hectare of prime land in Barolo country can go for $3,000,000 or more. That’s brought in outside buyers and some families have cashed in.
As I’ve said many times before, if you decide to do a self-guided tour of wineries, do not drink and drive. It might seem obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many tourists are driving around wine country with a good buzz on.
One of the most respected producers is Vietti. Founded by Lucca and Elena Currado, they sold to an American investor a couple of years ago, but still run the place themselves. Renting the land where they grew their grapes became too cost prohibitive, so the infused the business with cash from the sale to keep the quality of the wine high.
Tours are available and tastings run from 25 to 70 Euro, which is expensive, but this is one of the best wineries in all of Piedmont.
Another one of the best wineries is Elvio Cogno. Tastings are 40 Euro per person.
Visiting a winery is a lot of fun, but my preference is to find a good wine bar and sample the goods from several producers with a knowledgeable server. Turin focuses more on cocktail bars than wine bars, but a great option for wine lovers is Casa Del Barolo. The wine shop is one of the most respected in the city and they also have a good restaurant where you can sample lots of the wines they carry.
Of course, Barolo isn’t the only game in town. There are several other wine regions in Piedmont and they are less expensive than Barolo. Each of them has their own charms, but Barbaresco, Barbera d’Asti, and Roero are some of the best. The nice thing about some of these wines is that unlike Barolo, which is 100% Nebbiolo, other regions can blend in other grapes to take some of the harshness off the Nebbiolo. This allows them to sell younger, and less expensive wines.
Of course, Barolo is the king of wines and, as Tom Petty said, “It’s good to be king.”
Barolo Chinato takes the region’s famous Barolo wine and infuses a bark called cinchona along with herbs like coriander, clove, cardamom, and vanilla and bay leaf along with citrus rind. Grappa is added along with some sugar to help the Barolo Chinato go down. Order one as a digestiv after dinner in Turin.
Things to Do in Turin & Alba
Housed in a former factory (a former Vermouth factory, no less) in the Lingotto district or Turin, near the former Fiat factory, Eataly is a Mecca for foodies. Eataly has opened outposts in New York, Boston, Chicago, L.A., and several other U.S. cities. There’s also Eataly in Rome, Milan, Bologna, and other Italian cities as well as other locations all over the world. But, nothing beats a pilgrimage to the original gastronomic headquarters in Turin.
Until you set foot inside, it’s hard to imagine how vast this foodie playground is. The market has endless choices of pasta, olive oil, and chocolate, of course. But, there’s also truffles, Barolo wine, and every conceivable Italian condiment you can imagine. There’s also kitchen gadgets and cookbooks; in other words, make sure you have some extra space in your suitcase. I can’t think of a better place to buy souvenirs for your friends, family, or yourself.
Spread throughout almost 120,000 square feet of space are several restaurants including a wine bar, coffee bar, gelato shop, and the splurge-worthy Michelin starred Casa Vincina.
Fiat Test Track
The Italians love their cars. To them, they’re more than transportation, they’re an outward projection of their personality. Because of this, design is very important. That’s why Italian cars are both well-engineered (if not reliable) and beautiful.
Turin is the heart of the Italian auto industry. Fiat was born here as was Lancia. Alfa Romeo has a plant nearby. And, even though most auto production is now outside Turin, Fiat’s headquarters are still in the city.
Gearheads will enjoy the National Auto Museum.
But for me, admittedly a car-agnostic, the Fiat test track is much cooler.
The factory in the Lingotto neighborhood of Turin churned out Fiats for decades. After the last screw was tightened, the cars were taken to the factory’s roof for a test drive. Yes, there’s a test drive track on the roof of the Lingotto building! The track was even used for a scene of the 1969 movie “The Italian Job.”
Today, the building has been transformed into a huge shopping center. But the test track, as well as the circular ramp leading from the track to ground level, remain. To see the track, follow the signs for the Pinacoteca Agnelli gallery. You’ll need to buy a ticket to the gallery to access the roof (the door is right by the ticket counter). Here, there’s terrific views of the city along with the track, a great monument to Turin’s industrial past.
The Shroud of Turin
If Turin is famous for one thing, it’s the eponymous Shroud. Claimed by some religious scholars to be the burial cloth of Jesus, most scientific evidence points to the Shroud being created in the Middle Ages. Assuming the cloth is a fake, there is no definitive theory or proof on how it was made.
The Shroud first was mentioned by a French Bishop who wrote to Pope Clement VII in 1390 that the Shroud was a fake. However, interest in the Shroud continued and the cloth was given to Turin by the House of Savoy in 1578. Various repairs and restorations have been attempted on the Shroud over the years, some more successful than others.
The Shroud is currently housed in the Turin Cathedral (Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista), but as of this writing is not on public display. The cloth has been put on display every 5 to 10 years or so, the most recent time being 2015. You can go the cathedral and see the box where the Shroud is stored, but to me, that’s about as exciting as seeing someone’s cedar chest where they store their winter blankets.
There’s also a small museum, The Museum of the Holy Shroud, in Turin. The museum itself is in a small, dusty basement with artifacts behind glass. If you are a fan of this kind of ephemera like I am, you might find the museum entertaining. Things like a pin that was once used to hold up the Shroud are given places of prominence in the museum.
There’s also a short film to watch at the museum which details the history of the Shroud and some of the scientific study of the old textile. For me, I found it fascinating that at the museum, they refer not to Jesus, but “the man in the Shroud.”
Turin’s magnificent square is surrounded by museums, cafes, and the former royal palace. Don’t miss Caffe Mulassano, the birthplace of a famous Italian sandwich, if you go.
Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace)
Adjacent to the Turin Cathedral (Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista), where the Shroud of Turin is housed, is the grand Palazzo Reale. Built for Carlo Emanuele II, who became the Duke of Savoy at the ripe old age of 4, the palace shows off the extravagance of 17th century royalty. There’s displays of armor, furniture, as well as masterpieces by Rubens and Rembrandt. Tickets to the palace include entry to the Cappella della Sacra Sindone (Chapel of the Holy Shroud). The Shroud of Turin isn’t housed here anymore, but the chapel is stunning and worth a visit.
On the palace grounds is Giardini Reali, the royal garden designed by André Le Nôtre, the French landscape architect who designed the gardens at Versailles. If you want to skip the Royal Palace, you can access the gardens for free.
Carlo Emanuele II
And speaking of Carlo Emanuele II, Duke of Savoy, he holds a horrible place in history. The proto-Protestant Waldensians had been in Italy for around 500 years but in 1655, the Duchy of Savoy rescinded their special status and ordered them out of the kingdom. When some Waldensians failed to comply, House of Savoy soldiers massacred an estimated 4,000-6,000 people out of a population of 16,000(!). The rest of Europe was aghast. English poet John Milton was moved to write “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.”
But, when you look at the timeline, it seems Carlo might have been little more than a (not so innocent) bystander. By that I mean that Carlo Emmanuel II was 4 when he became Duke of Savoy and his mother, Christine of France, sister of Louis XIII, acted as regent and was in charge. Even after Carlo came of age, Christine was still calling the shots.
Even though Carlo was 21 when the massacre of the Waldensians was carried out, his mother was, for all intents and purposes, in charge. This was true until she died eight years later in 1663. At that point, there was a period of relative peace between the House of Savoy and the Waldensians, for which Carlo can likely be given credit. Then, shortly after Carlo’s death, persecution of the Waldensians recommenced. So, while a terribly ugly period in Turin’s history is a stain on his legacy, I’m not certain he can take full blame.
The Palazzo Madama was originally a Roman fortress, expanded in the Middle Ages to a full fledged castle. Later, the facade was added, giving it a sort of “Palace that Jack built” feeling. Inside are collections of paintings, furniture, sculptures, and church artifacts. Climbing to the top of the palace gives a good view of Turin, but for a great view, I prefer the Museum of Cinema.
Teatro Regio (Royal Theatre)
The first opera was written in Florence in 1598. Opera bloomed throughout Europe, especially in Germany and France, but Italy remains the center of the opera universe. Giants like Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini created some of Opera’s all-time greatest works in Italy.
Milan’s La Scala is probably the most famous opera house in Italy, or even the world, and worth a trip. My other favorite opera house is the Massimo Theater in Palmero. After being closed for years, the Palermo opera house is finally back open. If you can’t go there, you can see it at the end of the movie Godfather III.
The opulent Teatro Regio first opened in 1740. The entire theater (except the facade) was destroyed by fire in 1936 and although plans were made to rebuild, work did not start until 1967 and the theater was not reopened until 1973, a full 37 years after the fire. The new theater was inaugurated with a performance of I vespri siciliani, an opera by Verdi and directed by Maria Callas.
The facade, which survived the fire, remains intact, but the new interior is modern in design. The theater presents about ten operas, ballets, and plays per season which run from October to June.
National Museum of Cinema (Museo Nazionale del Cinema)
It was Christmas morning and we knew it would be slim pickins in Turin; everything was closed. So, we went for a walk just to see the locals walking their dogs or heading to see family or friends early.
I was convinced we would be eating out of a vending machine when we saw folks lining up by the entrance of the National Museum of Cinema. Online it said they would be closed for Christmas, but a handwritten sign taped to a window indicated they would indeed be opening soon. As a lover of Italian films, I was thrilled. Plus, it would be a helluva lot warmer inside.
Once inside, we scored big time. The museum’s cafe, run by Eataly was open for Christmas brunch! No bags of chips for us, we ate very well and washed it down with Christmas Prosecco.
The museum itself is filled with artifacts of the film industry, both from Italy and worldwide, including early cameras (like the fascinating Magic Lantern), books, posters, memorabilia, and much, much more.
On the lower level are screens with extremely comfortable lounge chairs. I may or may not have nodded off while watching some films.
The interior design of the museum is fascinating. Rather than being laid out on floors, the outer perimeter of the museum spirals down from the upper reaches to the ground floor. This led me to think that the design was like a reel of film, unspooling downwards in a continuous string. Of course, that’s probably just my own crackpot theory as I’ve got a crackpot theory for most everything.
The building that houses the museum is famous as well. The Mole Antonelliana was designed to be a Synagogue and building started in 1863, at a time when Turin was the capital of Italy and Jews enjoyed full civil rights. Construction, however, was halted in 1869. In 1874, the Jewish community, many of whom had left Turin when the capital moved to Florence in 1865, withdrew from the project and the city took over, with the project being completed in in 1889, but not as a Synagogue. The Mole Antonelliana is pictured on the back of the Italian 2 Euro coin.
To get the best views of Turin, take the glass elevator in the middle of the Mole Antonelliana to the top of the huge spire.
Piazza San Carlo
Just a ten minute walk from Piazza Castello is Piaza San Carlo. The beautiful Baroque square is one of the most lovely in Italy and there are several cafes where you can enjoy an espresso or Bicerin, and watch the equally lovely Italians walk by. Adding to the charming atmosphere is the arched arcade around the perimeter of the piazza.
Quadrilatero Romano (Roman Quarter)
Turin was a Roman military encampment 2,000 years ago and remnants of the empire are still visible in this old neighborhood. The Museo della Sindone (Musuem of the Shroud of Turin) is here as well.
The Porta Palantina is a city gate dating to the Roman period around the first century. Two towers, one on each end of the gate, remain as well. It’s quite fortunate that the gate remains, since it was scheduled for demolition before an architect convinced the Duke in the early 18th century to preserve the structure for its historical importance.
Near the Roman gate is purportedly the largest open market in Europe. Porta Palazzo is technically in the Aurora neighborhod’s Piazza della Repubblica, but it’s just a quick walk from Porta Palantina. Over 800 vendors sell everything from fresh fruit and veggies to prepared foods to clothing, household items, and crafts. Parts of the market have a North African vibe as Moroccans, who have a vibrant community in Turin, sell at several market stalls. It should be noted, however, that some Moroccans have left the city since the xenophobic Five Star Movement took control of the local government.
The wonderfully elegant Baratti & Milano is filled with antique furniture and chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. This is a truly sophisticated Turin coffee house where they make their own brand of caramels and Gianduiotto (chocolates with hazelnut). Great spot to stop for a Bicerin.
One of Turin’s top restaurants is also in the Quadrilatero Romano. Consorzio practices Slow Food principles and they also have truffles on the menu when in season; the owner’s father is a truffle hunter. In fact, the restaurant is a family effort as the owner’s wife’s family has a winery in Asti that supplies the restaurant with biodynamic wines.
Hard to believe, but tiny Alba, Italy has almost as many Michelin starred restaurants as Barcelona. And Barcelona has nearly 300(!) times Alba’s population. No doubt about it, you can eat very, very well in Alba, but bring your wallet.
Alba itself is overwhelming known for two things. Nutella and Alba White Truffles. Nutella was invented here by a local chocolatier, and when Michele Ferrero died, he was the richest man in Italy, surpassing even the notorious Silvio Berlusconi.
Alba was a Roman city, but only part of the Roman gate remains. Alba was also known as the “City of a hundred towers” but only a couple of those still stand.
The deconsecrated San Domenico church is the most interesting in Alba. Gothic in design, because it is older than most other churches, the interior features some very interesting frescoes.
Three Michelin Stars
At the pinnacle of the high-end foodie restaurants is Piazza Duomo, boasting the maximum of three Michelin stars. The restaurant has only 11 tables so personal service is assured. Chef Enrico Crippa selects vegetables and herbs from the restaurant’s garden each day to create dishes for PD’s menu. What he can’t get from the garden is sourced locally. Piazza Duomo is an exquisite experience; one for which you will pay.
Alba White Truffles
Truffles are an extremely rare fungus that grows with the roots of hazelnut and oak trees. Growing underground, truffles not visible to the human eye so specially trained dogs are employed to sniff them out in the forests around Alba. Black Perigord and Burgundy truffles are hard enough to find, but the White Alba Truffle is exceedingly rare and can fetch several thousand dollars per pound.
During truffle season in the fall and early winter, restaurants will proudly shave fresh white truffles on your pasta (for a significant upcharge, of course) and truffle shops display the white nuggets under glass, just like a jeweler would display diamonds in their store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
International Alba White Truffle Fair
The pinnacle of the White Truffle season is the International Alba White Truffle Fair (Fiera Internazionale Tartufo Bianco D’Alba) held each year in October and November. The Fair features demonstrations, workshops, discussions, and a large open market where truffles and truffle products are sold. The highlight of the event is the white truffle auction. Large truffles are auctioned off for eye-popping prices. In 2019, a truffle weighing a little over 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) went for 120,000 Euro (almost $135,000).
Now, you might rightly ask, why would someone pay such a price for a truffle? After all, you could get white truffles shaved on your pasta for fifty bucks or so, and it would taste just as magical. Bragging rights, that’s the reason. Although, in some cases, restaurants have bought huge truffles and used them as a promotional item to drum up business.
I talked about Barolo earlier, but if you want to visit some of the best Barolo wineries, it’s a good idea to pair that trip with Alba. Some of the best, like Vietti and Elvio Cogno are only about 10 miles from Alba. Of course the scenery is magnificent and going to a winery or two can be a fun way to spend half a day. Just remember, be sure to have a designated driver and book your visits in advance. Most places, unlike in the U.S., will not take drop-ins.
It’s easy and cheap to get from Turin to Milan by train. The fastest one whisks you from Porto Nuovo in Turin to Milano Centrale in 45 minutes (slower trains can take almost 2 hours). Although Milan is worth staying for a few days, cramming a lot into a day trip is possible.
If you take the train, your first stop is probably Milano Centrale, the Fascist era monster station. The glass roof in the atrium is pretty spectacular, so don’t forget to look up.
The Last Supper
The number one thing everyone wants to see in Milan is Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper.” The painting is housed in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Da Vinci’s work is environmentally protected as it is extremely fragile and there is a strict limit on the number of visitors allowed to see “The Last Supper.” Since tickets are so limited it is very important to reserve a spot online.
Milan’s Cathedral and Opera House
Milan is also home to the most magnificent Gothic cathedral in Italy. Construction of Il Duomo started in 1386 but wasn’t completed until 1900(!) The cathedral has two huge organs including the largest in all of Italy. Climb to the top for spectacular views of the city.
La Scala is Milan’s impressive opera house. Tickets to see the opera are expensive, but the theater has a museum with lots of artifacts and there is also a guided tour available.
Picnic in Milan
Peck is the center of Milan’s culinary universe. Deli cases are filled with cheeses, meats, and prepared foods galore laid out over three mouth watering floors. Stock up on provisions for a picnic because Milan’s largest green space, Parco Sempione, is just a ten minute walk away. Or dine in at Peck’s onsite restaurant or cafe. Downstairs, there’s a terrific wine cellar.
Milan is a big city, but it has good public transportation. The yellow trams are quite charming and a great way to get around.
International airport with service to most major European cities. Currently, no direct service to North America.
Airport Transfers from TRN
Taxis are readily available, but expensive, about € 30. Uber Black (expensive) is also available, though there are plans to offer taxi service through the Uber app.
Terravision offers bus service which is much cheaper and relatively efficient.
Chamonix has one light rail line from the airport to Dora station. From there you’ll have to take a bus to the city center. Not ideal unless you’re staying very close to the Dora Station.
Smaller airport serving some low-cost carriers.
Airport Transfers from CUF
Getting to Turin from Cuneo is less convenient than from the larger Turin-Caselle Airport. CUF is smaller and further from the city. There is no light rail and taxis, due to the distance, are extremely expensive.
There is a bus that goes from the airport to the Lingotto Station, south of the city. From there you can take a bus, depending on your final destination. The 18 bus goes to the center of the city. Like I said, not convenient.
Gruppo Torinese Trasporti (GTT)
GTT operates the entire public transportation system including buses, three metro lines (two are suburban lines, one in the city), and the tram system.
The main information office is at the Porta Nuova station.
A single ticket (good for 100 minutes) costs € 1.70, but you can get a 24 hour ticket for just € 4. Tickets can be purchased at stations or newstands, tobacconists, or bars around the city.
[To]Bike is the bike share company in Turin. Over 140 stations in the city.
Lime electric scooters are also available in Turin.
Index of Things to Do in Turin & Alba
Free and discounted admissions to museums and reduced fare on tourist bus.
Several food tour experiences in Turin.
Massive foodie paradise near the old Fiat factory. Eataly also has a cafe in the National Museum of Cinema.
Turin’s regal opera house burned down in 1936 and was rebuilt with a modern design, opening in 1973. Operas are performed between October and June.
Huge displays of historic cinematic paraphernalia and movie posters. Quite engaging.
Royal Palace for the House of Savoy.
Originally a Roman fort, then a sumptuous palace.
Dusty basement museum dedicated to the Shroud of Turin.
Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista
Dedicated to the patron saint of the city. Climb the bell tower for a spectacular view. The Shroud of Turin is housed here, but only rarely displayed.
One of the oldest churches in Turin dating back almost 1,000 years. Nice frescoes.
One of the top attractions in Turin with a huge collection of Egyptian artifacts.
Fiat Test Track
Test track used for Fiats coming off the factory floor. Admission to the Pinacoteca Agnelli museum required to see the track.
With Turin’s history as an automotive center (Fiat was founded and is headquartered here), it’s no surprise that the city features an excellent car museum.
Well preserved Roman gateway from the 1st century.
Most famous square in Turin surrounded by palaces, museums, and restaurants.
Baroque square with lots of restaurants and cafes.
Piazza San carlo, 10121 Turin, Italy
Fans of unusual museums will enjoy this one dedicated to a soldier in Turin who saved the city from French invaders.
Get away from the city at this lovely park.
Home of the famous soccer club. Tours available.
Church of San Domenico (Chiesa di San Domenico)
Gothic church in Alba with interesting frescoes.
One of the best wineries in Piedmont with excellent Barolos. Bookings for a visit are required.
Outstanding Barolo winery. Advance booking required for tastings.
Church in Milan where Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is displayed. Advance reservations needed.
Milan’s magnificent cathedral. Climb to the top for great views of the city.
Milan’s impressive opera house.
Milan’s culinary heart, Peck has a huge deli, cafe, restaurant and wine cellar.
Milan’s largest greenspace, 10 minute walk from Peck.
Piazza Sempione, 20154 Milano MI, Italy
Index of Eating & Drinking in Turin & Alba
Outside the town center but worth the trip. Menu changes daily, reservations highly recommended.
Birthplace of the Tramezzino sandwich.
Great vegan restaurant with cashew cheese Agnolotti al Plin on the menu.
Wine shop and good restaurant where you can sample many of their wines.
Elegant perfume shop with a hidden cafe in the back with a sophisticated Aperitivo.
Nice spot for Aperitivo.
Aperitivo often includes Bagna Cauda.
Michelin Bib Gourmand with many Piedmontese favorites.
Classic Turin coffee house. Great location right on Piazza San Carlo.
Classic, stylish cafe for a Bicerin and hazelnut cookies.
Slow Food restaurant in Turin. Tasting menu is a good value. Truffles are on the menu when in season.
Michelin starred restaurant with classic Piedmonte cuisine..
Contemporary Italian Cuisine. One Michelin star.
Delicious breads, cakes, and pastries.
Inventor of the iconic Bicerin.
Famous cafe in Turin, makes an excellent Bicerin.
Contemporary restaurant with small plates for Aperitivo. Michelin plate designation.
Nice pastries in this narrow shop.
Well respected Turin restaurant with excellent tasting menu.
Great spot with Agnolotti del Plin on the tasting menu. Risotto is excellent as well. Highly recommended spot.
Top flight Michelin starred restaurant with prices to match.
Once a private members club, now one of Turin’s finest restaurants. Reservations required.
One of Turin’s oldest restaurants and a great spot for Bagna Cauda.
Artisan gelato maker using local and sustainable ingredients.
Alba’s star gastronomy attraction. 3 Michelin stars.
Index of Shopping in Turin
Foodie superstore paradise.
800 stalls at this open air market. Claims to be the largest open air market in Europe.
A few food stalls, but mostly focused on fashion from many Italian designers.
Finest cheese shop in Turin.
Excellent chocolate. The “Giandujotto King” uses Piedmont hazelnuts.
One of Italy’s best chocolate shops. Grappa filled chocolates!
Award winning Turin chocolatier.
Excellent chocolate shop with some vegan chocolates, as well.
Huge, high quality flea market held each Saturday (and the second Sunday of the month)
Index of Places to Stay in Turin
Small B&B in the Romano Quadrilatero district.
Turin’s most famous hotel.
Affordably priced apartments on Piazza Vittorio.
Beautifully decorated hotel in the center of town.
Just because Mozart and Verdi stayed here doesn’t mean you should too. On this plus side, it’s not terribly expensive.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written several Foodie Travel Guides to cities in Italy including Rome, Naples, Palermo, the Amalfi Coast, and the Cinque Terre. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.