Turin's famous Bicerin ... or 12 minutes of ecstasy
Posted: Monday February 13, 2006 7:36PM; Updated: Tuesday February 14, 2006 9:52AM
Monday, Feb. 13, 11:26 p.m. local, Day Four
When in ... Turin: For four euros, you can get your hands on liquid heaven.
Some people dream of gold medals.
Not me. Last night I dreamed of chocolate, coffee, and cream. I dreamed I rented an apartment four floors above Al Bicerin and spent my days and nights sipping the nectar of Turin.
On my second night here, SI staffers Richard Demak, Miriam Marseu and I made a pilgrimage to Al Bicerin, the eternal home for the most famous drink in the city. The bicerin (pronounced bee-shur-REEN) is a heavenly mix of melted chocolate, espresso and thick cream that tastes like liquid Penelope Cruz. Or at least what I imagine liquid Penelope Cruz tastes like. Last night my body was in withdrawal. It was telling me something.
So on Sunday I returned to Al Bicerin, where Italian author Silvio Pellico sat and wrote Le Mie Prigioni on his release from the Spielberg jail. If I had known that story beforehand, I likely would have written this blog after watching Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. To get to Cafe Heaven from our East German detention center (or its formal title, the media village), I walked down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to Corso Galileo Ferraris. I walked past Italian women dressed more sharply than a Dolce & Gabbana catalog, and an ad that features Dustin Hoffman holding a coffee cup with Caffe Vergnano on it. Eventually, I found myself once again in the middle of Piazza della Consolata, where the cafe is located across from the entrance to the Santuario della Consolata. Heaven, indeed.
The cafe scene here dates back to the 19th century (which may be the last time I did laundry), when the intellectuals of Turin would flock to the bars. If he had lived in this time, I could see SI's Michael Farber leading an intellectual discussion on why women's hockey should not be played in the Olympics. Farber, by the way, has been doing more radio reports from here than Edward R. Murrow did from London. The man has a smooth voice and a sharp pen.
During my first trip to Al Bicerin -- where we sat at a marbled-topped table on red velvet seats before heading into a food coma -- we met the real-life woman (Elizabeth Bona) whose visage appears on the boxes of chocolate sold by Al Bicerin's adjoining cioccolateria. There was also a crew from ABC News, who bought us free drinks so they could film us for Good Morning America. (Let me now take the time to praise producer Clark Bentson, who previously worked in Iraq and can say he went from Baghdad to Bicerin.)
Of the famed drink, Lucia Sollazzo of La Repubblica once said, "Though "bicerin" means "small glass," it is in fact packed with sustenance with its base of concentrated chocolate, topped with a layer of espresso, covered with cream. It is a power pack of energy." I timed how long it took me to finish it: 12 minutes. But those 12 minutes were divided into three delicious segments. The first three minutes, while the glass was still hot, I enjoyed the thick cream and got a hint of the melted chocolate. The middle three minutes I tasted the coffee -- and noticed my heart was pounding 10 extra beats per minute. Then the bell lap, the final three minutes. This is when the rubber meets the road and the coffee meets the chocolate. I'd rather not go into what it feels like so Father Looney doesn't get mad at me.
Outside the cafe, photographer Andrew Gombert and I met the same Father Looney, the head pastor of St. James Church in Davis, Calif. Father Looney was leading a small group on a tour of Turin (the day before he had met Susan Sarandon outside the cafe; I'm sure he was just as excited to run into me) and explained that bicerin was best sipping. "Don't stir," Father Looney advised, and I had no interest in arguing with a holy man outside of a place that sold a holy drink. Along with Father Looney, we also met Cameron Beck, whose daughter, Malerie, plays soccer with the daughter of SI senior writer Michael Silver, who should be ecstatic that I just mentioned his name in a column that didn't involve Jerome Bettis.
Andrew and I enjoyed our drinks (the bicerin costs four euros) while attempting to read La Stampa. I made out the headline ZOEGGELER PRIMO ORO d'ITALIA and little else. We later discovered that only women work at Al Bicerin, which has always been the way for this smart cafe. We asked one of the women if they were excited about the Olympics being in Turin. "Business must be booming," I said. She looked back at me with a puzzled face. "We don't live for business," she said.