When you step through the doorway of Caffè Al Bicerin in Turin, Italy, you enter a sanctuary of sweets. The light from candles on marble-topped tables bounces off mirrors around the dark-paneled room. Shelves behind the counter hold dozens of glass jars full of rainbow-colored candies. Heavy, sugary scents fill the air. This wondrous space is best known for its version of the city’s beloved bicerin (BEE-chay-REEN), a heady beverage made from chocolate, cream, and espresso.
A café opened on these premises in 1763, but Al Bicerin took its current name a half century or so later, when the drink was invented. While there is some debate among Turinese about which café first created bicerin, all agree that it is descended from the warm 17th-century brew called bavareisa, a blend of coffee, chocolate, and milk served in generous portions. In contrast, the revised concoction was carefully composed of discrete layers—its ingredients poured separately into a small clear glass called a bicerin.
During the 1800s, cafés were primarily the province of men, but that changed when women took over the operation of Al Bicerin and made it one of the few places in town deemed civilized enough for unaccompanied females. This was no bawdy bar where men drank and smoked. It was demure and classy: a place to sip chocolate, nibble on spoonfuls of zabaione (a cloudlike dessert made from whipped eggs and sugar), or, most daringly, enjoy a glass of vermouth.
From 1910 to 1977, the café was operated by the women of the Cavalli family, including matriarch Ida and her daughter Olga. In 1983, Maritè Costa, raised in a village outside of Turin, bought Al Bicerin. Today, Costa and her husband, Turin native Alberto Landi, maintain the old recipes and traditions. One custom arose from the café’s location, across a small piazza from the Santuario della Consolata, a baroque and neoclassic church that houses an ancient statue of the Madonna. Worshippers popularized Al Bicerin as a place to break their fasts—with bicerin—after communion. “It was the perfect food for that,” says Landi. “You have the chocolate, the coffee to wake you up, and the cream—a lot of calories.”
As a boy, Landi experienced the café as an integral part of daily life. His mother brought him to Al Bicerin after trips to get vaccinated at the hospital down the block. A hot chocolate was the sugar after the medicine, the perfect thing to placate a 5-year-old with a sore arm.
Over the centuries, the café has also lured a long line of artists and intellectuals, including the Count of Cavour, Alexandre Dumas, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Giacomo Puccini. In more recent decades, author Italo Calvino was known to stop in for a glass. “It has been sort of a protected island,” Landi says of the café. “If you are a very famous person, you can take your table and sit there and read, and nobody will disturb you.”
Al Bicerin (Piazza della Consolata 5, 39/011-436-9325) is but one of many Turin cafés that offer the legendary drink. Other elegant landmarks include Caffè Fiorio (Via Po 8, 39/011-817-3225), founded in 1780, and Baratti & Milano (Piazza Castello 29, Galleria Subalpina, 39/011-440-7138), dating from 1858. Still, the rendition served at Al Bicerin may stir the most curiosity. “A lot of people ask for the recipe, but ours is a secret,” Landi says. “The hot chocolate is prepared with an original formula. It’s cooked for many hours and is very distinctive.” He will confirm one thing about the magic of bicerin. “It’s addictive,” he says. “Chocolate gives happiness.” A
Caffé Al Bicerin’s exact recipe is closely guarded. Writer Marie Doezema adapted this one from several that she tested.
1 cup whole milk
3 ounces high-quality dark chocolate, chopped
4 shots espresso
1⁄2 cup freshly whipped cream, sweetened to taste
1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk and the chocolate together until boiling. Whisk vigorously for a couple of minutes until foamy. Remove from heat.
2. Slowly pour the warm chocolate mixture into two clear glasses, preferably small goblets with stems.
3. Being careful not to disturb the bottom layer of hot chocolate, trickle two shots of espresso into each glass.
4. Top the drinks with whipped cream. Serve immediately; provide spoons.
Photos by Andrea Wyner. This story appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.