I just arrived in Torino, and as usual when I visit Italy, I felt an immediate sense of well-being. Torino is a cafe city, with huge porticos that you can walk under throughout the town; it has been called “the most Italian city in France.” I love watching all the people dressed up for being out in public, even in the heat, with colorful sundresses, men wearing green and purple pants. Such a sense of style.
But what I love most in Italy are the markets, and Torino has two that seem to represent the old and new here, the traditional Porta Palazzo and the huge, almost fetishistically good Eataly at Lingotto, near the old Fiat factory. Enrico Deaglio, a Torinese journalist here who is the partner of my good friend Cecilia, explained to me that the Porta Palazzo goes back to before medieval times, when it was the central market for all traders in northern Europe. Cecilia and I took the tram to near the Porta Palazzo and came upon a huge market. One side was festooned with cheap clothing, probably made in China, but the food side was all-Italian.
Every time I travel in Italy and see markets like this, I want to cook. There was a huge hall with all kinds of fish, stands upon stands of tomatoes, vegetables, olives, cheeses, flowers, meats. Everything was local, everything was at the height of the season. We had a long day before us, so I only bought a few rosy apricots; the vendor picked the ones that were perfectly ripe to eat that day.
We went from Porta Palazzo into the medieval streets of centro Torino, and then stopped at a 17th-century cafe called Al Bicerin. A bicerin is a Torinese specialty, basically hot chocolate with cream and sometimes rum. It’s a ridiculous thing to drink in the middle of a hot summer day, but you can’t really leave Torino without trying one. The chocolate was amazing, not at all sweet. You sip it with a spoon. Mine didn’t have rum, but it would’ve been good with rum.
After we wandered around the centro, we took a train to Lingotto, which is where the old Fiat factory and the workers housing is. We walked past the long factory to what used to be an old vermouth factory and houses Eataly, which must be the world’s most amazing supermarket (one opened recently in New York). The market showcases absolutely the best of all Italian foods, with an enormous variety.
When we first walked in, the market looked too precious and sterile, especially after the colorful bustle of Porta Palazzo. We were hungry by 3:00 after subsisting all day, Italian-style, on a cappuccino. We sat at one of the bars that served food; since it was late, only the “carne/formaggio” bar was open, so we shared a couple of plates, prosciutto melone and a burrata cheese with some mache and red pepper conserve. The bread came in a little basket that told us the provenance of the flour, that it was ground with stones, baked in a wood-fired oven that morning, and explained where the sale came from, too. It was some of the best prosciutto and burrata I’ve had.
Fortified, we could make our way around the market. I was stupefied. There were rows and rows of every kind of pasta imaginable. Hundreds of brands of olive oil. A huge case of fresh pasta. Every kind of jam and sauce imaginable. Huge displays of cheeses and meats. The seafood looked like it all slithered and flopped into the case a few moments before. Clean and tidy, everything was displayed as if for a photo. Eataly made Whole Foods look like it has the produce variety of a 7-11.
Eataly, which was created by Oscar Farinetti, opened a few years ago, in collaboration with the Slow Food movement. The idea is to showcase the best Italian artisanal foods, and also create a space for people to sample and learn about them. The place is awesome, and, of course, expensive.
There was so much to try that I settled in on picking out my dinner for the next day. I bought some fresh gorgonzola plin, which is what the Torinese call little ravioli. I also picked up some perfect, peppery arugula. Then I went to the cheese stand to try some pecorino cheese, which is my favorite (made from sheep’s milk). I was atonished at the sheer quantity of pecorinos. I tried one washed in barolo, I tried one with herbs, and finally settled on something simpler and more soulful, a simple fiore sardo cheese. I wanted to take home bottles of olive oil, big hunks of bottarga, Sicilian marmalade, slices from the fat legs of prosciutto hanging in the meat section.
My friend Cecilia shops here, she says, when it’s Sunday and the markets closer to home are closed. It’s a fun palce to visit, but for most people, it’s not a place you can shop or eat eery day. I was amazed by Eataly, but also felt a little like it was all too easy. One of the delights of Italy is coming across those artisan foods where they are local, discovering them, having the locals prepare them with pride. A Sardinian cheese doesn’t taste the same away from Sardinia, though it is still a wonderful cheese. Unlike at the Porta Palazzo, there wasn’t a cast of characters calling out to sell me their peppers and snails; the human interaction was missing, too, because Eataly is populated by professionals.
All that said, Oscar, could you please bring an Eataly to San Francisco?
After Eataly, we dropped by the old Fiat factory, which has turned into an awful mall, with loud music, the smell of popcorn, and rows of teenage shops from which you cannot escape. Inexplicably, in the middle of all this, is an art gallery, the collection of the grandson of the founder of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli, and his wife, Marella. For four euros we got to see six Matisses, which I figure is a deal. Even better, we got to walk on the roof of the building, which is the old race track for Fiat. They’d start building the cars at the bottom of the factory, then they’d work their way up to the top, where they’d get taken out for a spin on the track.
Deaglio told me that when Agnelli died, everyone in town, some 200,000 people, including him, stood in the line, starting at the bottom of the factoring, and going to the top, to shake the hands of the remaining family and to see the casket. The Torinese are proud of their town, with its industrial beginnings, its cornucopia of food, its Paris-like streets, its cafes.
We ended the day at dinner on the sidewalk near the house at a lovely place where we had anchovies and raw meat appetizers, and some pasta with swordfish, cherry tomatoes, and capers, which is hardly Torinese. I should’ve had something more local, which would have been heavy on a summer day, so I ate something from Sicily instead. Foodwise, I love the North of Italy, but I would choose the South.