The 2016 Giro d’Italia comes to its grand finalé in the northern City of Turin on Sunday, but there is much more to cycle touring in the Piedmont region than big mountain climbs. Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours takes us on a culinary and cultural journey through Torino as the peloton readies its self for the last battles.
-By Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours–
As is the case all across Italy, the northern region of Piedmont is best defined by its people, wine and food – in this case, the Piedmontese, Barolo and truffles. The region consists of an all-encompassing landscape that ranges from flat river valley, to vine drenched hills to snowcapped mountain peaks. Piedmont is one of the most densely populated regions and one of the wealthiest and along with Lombardy, is the economic engine that fuels the peninsula.
The capital is Turin, Torino to the Italians, and is probably best known for its more popular history, both ancient and modern, which includes the Shroud of Turin, the 2006 Winter Olympics and the title of Italy’s first capital following unification. The city is the fourth largest in Italy and at its economic heart it is known as the birthplace of the automobile industry in Italy, with factories for FIAT, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.
Cyclists with a keen sense of history will know the city as the birthplace of Lavazza coffee and Cinzano vermouth, branded so famously in the cycling film classic Breaking Away. But the most important aspect of Torino is the people. And while Italians in general are warm and engaging, the Torinese are downright affable, genuine, generous and to quote the people themselves, fantastico. After my experience there, it is hard to imagine a better city for the Giro to finish in.
Life in Italy is defined as much by the country side as it is by any of its capital cities, and to appreciate this, it is important to engage in both to absorb the lifestyle and indulge in what makes Italy so maddening and so wonderful – the people for starters, followed by the food, the magnificence of the cities, the stunning beauty of the landscape and the passion with which they do everything.
For years, the notion of hospitality in Italy seemed non-existent. The Italians were mired in a stale culture of service that was gruff, off putting and indifferent. But over the past few years, a transition has taken hold as the country has become more internationalized and recognizes the value of good hospitality.
In Piedmont, this was at the heart of every encounter I had with people: from the small villages surrounding the Monteferrato Hills and the towns of Alba and Asti as well as the brilliant city of Torino. The most enlightening encounter I had was with one of Piedmont’s biggest stars – Chef Walter Ferretto. Ferretto is considered the father of modern Piedmontese cuisine (I won’t sidetrack here to delve into that) and his slick, Michelin star restaurant on the outskirts of the town of Asti portrays his culinary excellence perfectly. The key to the dinner, however, was not just the exceptional food.
Walter Ferretto is a modern man, working his restaurant as adeptly as a business as he does in his kitchen. And while it’s a family affair – what business in Italy isn’t – his clearly foregoes traditional imagery for something more contemporary with underlying affection for what makes Piedmont so great. As we arrived for dinner, we were expertly attended to by Mr. Ferretto’s brother, Romano. I slipped into the cradle of the plush dining chair and studying the menu, out came Mr. Ferretto, chef’s apron over his jeans, sneakers on his feet.
He slid a chair over from the next table, sat down, and in very good English, started chatting. “I have been to New York many times with my wife”, he says, “where is your favorite place to eat?” he asks. “Where else will you go in Piedmont?” “Torino is next” I answer. “Torino is fantastico!” (a favorite Piedmontese expression I came to learn) “Where do you recommend we eat in Torino?” I ask, “Magorabin, of course” he answers. “I inquired for a reservation but had not hear back” I said. He quickly asks his hostess for the phone and promptly calls the restaurant. “You are confirmed”, he says.
We then ask about one of the pastas. Walter begins to explain, and when learning of my southern Italian roots, he proceeds to describe in great detail the difference between his agnolotti and those from the south, which he politely and humorously says, are not as good. I thought for a moment he may just sit down and join us for dinner. After taking our order, he worked the dining room with the other guests, his personality naturally conducting the conversation. Following dinner, he returned and was humble in accepting our praise of his kitchen’s excellence. The conversation had artfully transcended the entire evening, and even when we were eating, we felt we were still conversing with Walter through his food.
This was a perfect lead in to the magical city of Torino. And while food is paramount here, one must to some extent also love the automobile, primarily because of its historical significance in the development of the auto industry in Torino, primarily FIAT and the Lingotto factory. FIAT is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile Factory of Turin) and is the most important manufacturing company in Piedmont, if not all of Italy.
The original factory, built in 1929, was so innovative for its time it consisted of a vertically oriented assembly line that consisted of spiral ramps leading to a 500 meter rooftop test track. Each car was driven on the track upon completion. The enormous complex has been converted to a shopping mall, movie theater complex and hotel. It is so vast it has its own underground stop.
The other thing about Torino that one must appreciate is food- and food of all kinds. The slow food movement, which is somewhat ubiquitous now, along the same line as “organic”, began in Piedmont and Torino recognizes purveyors of excellence through stringent qualifications that when followed enable membership into an elite organization that pronounces these experts as a Maestro del Gusto – a Master of Taste. It is hard to think of a better title to have. When the question is asked about what someone does or who they are, the answer is simply “oh he is a Master of Taste.” No further explanation is needed.
The heart and soul of Torino lies within this, a taste for excellence that impacts everything. Chocolate shops; gelato shops; gourmet food shops; butchers and fish mongers; handmade pasta shops; bakeries; cafes and of course, restaurants. It is a city both defined by and begging to be best consumed through taste. And one of the city’s most famous tastes is aged, sweet vermouth. Carpano, Cinzano and Martini and Rossi are well known producers that began as far back as the mid 1700’s , concocting the herbal infused fortified wine that has come to define the elegance of cocktail drinking in this city, and is a key ingredient in the negroni, a drink favored by Mr. Pez himself.
Following our evening with Mr. Ferretto, we indulged in Torino’s finest restaurant, Magorabin. Legend has it Magorabin was the Italian version of the Boogey Man, coming to haunt children at night if they didn’t finish their dinner. Young and flaunting dreadlocks, Chef Marcello Trentini is a Ferretto disciple and his experimentation with taste and texture was something I only thought happened in France or the Basque Country.
A true master of taste, Trentini single handedly has put Torino on the culinary map. It was here where I was enlightened by the traditional vermouth cocktail, which I was told is “1 part bitter, 2 parts sweet and 3 parts tonic. It’s our recipe for life.” It is hard to argue with and I walked away with a finer appreciation of the blue, red and black Cinzano label.
In true Italian panache, the final stage of teh 2016 Giro d’Italia will host a circuit through and around Torino, which will cross the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuele I, ride past the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio, climb up to the Piazzale Villa della Regina and finish in the shadow of the monument to Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, who is the Prince of Venice and the only male-line grandson of Umberto II, the last King of Italy. To me, that alone defines grandeur in a city that personifies it in an understated and humble means.
While the final stage of most grand tours is a celebratory parade, the beauty of the Giro is its ability to celebrate its various capitals by changing locations to host the finale of the race each year (unlike the Tour de France). And while stage 19 may define the winner with the daunting Colle dell’Agnello (this year’s Cima Coppi at 2,744 meters) the thought of Torino’s historic center, its magnificent arcaded buildings that line the avenue, with its palaces and museums, the cobbled side streets, lined with shops so passionately owned and attended to by their Maestri del Gusto, all filled with spectators-whether you’re a cycling fan or not – sipping sweet vermouth, nibbling on chocolate, enjoying a gelato; simply experiencing the one word that defines this city – fantastico.
Peter Easton is the owner of VeloClassic Tours, a company who specializes in highly personalized luxury cycling travel experiences for serious cyclists through enlightened hospitality. For over a decade, Peter has shown guests the best riding, dining and hotels for cyclists across Europe, and is an expert in the rides, roads and races that make up the Spring Classics.