Slope off for dinner in Turin

Truffles, cream, tender beef, pasta dumplings... Turin has it all. Caroline Stacey says the most important thing any visitor can take to the Winter Olympics host city is a hearty appetite

The Fiat Cinquecento, Martini, Nutella, Barolo, Lavazza coffee, white truffles, Ferrero Rocher, the Slow Food movement, a holy shroud and Antonio Carluccio: when it comes to great inventions and exports the north Italian region of Piedmont and its capital, Turin, beat entire countries hands down.

The most important thing any visitor to Turin should take is an appetite. Like every other region of Italy, the birthplace of the Risorgimento - the movement that united the country - has its particular culinary specialities. Turin is almost as far from the sea as anywhere in Italy, yet anchovies, preserved for travelling inland, are one of the ingredients of Antonio Carluccio's regional favourites, bagna cauda. Anchovies, garlic and butter make up the pungent hot dip for raw vegetables, uniting winter diners together round the flame that keeps the dip hot.

Risotto alla Piemontese consists of nothing but rice, butter, white wine and white truffle, the fabled fungus that nestles in tree roots in Piedmont's high woods. Nothing more perfectly illustrates the Piedmontese art of combing comforting sustenance with simple luxury. Another fortifying winter dish is the local fondue: cream, egg yolks and fontina, one of several cheeses from the Valle d'Aosta, all, again, scented with truffle.

At the splendid 18th-century Ristorante del Cambio, couples murmur appreciatively over the classical Piedmont cooking - exceptional agnolotti pasta dumplings, and the tenderest beef - in the mirrored dining room. And there under a glass dome on a table in the centre of the room sits a trophy truffle, unprepossessing but displayed as if it had the dazzle of a priceless diamond.

Magnificently baroque Turin, the region's smoothly running engine, doesn't have instant charm. The way to warm to it is by discovering its historic cafés, sanctuaries from the coldest winter days, tucked under the porticoes of the Piazzas Castello and San Carlo.

As well as the fortifying portions of food, cups of hot chocolate help keep out the cold. Turin is famous for chocolate, especially combined with the hazelnuts that grow in the Piedmont woods - hence Nutella, Ferrero Rocher and at the top end, the exquisite gianduiotto pralines. Guido Gobino is a backstreet chocolatier where, behind the chic display of hand-made chocolates, hoppers of hazelnuts and vats of the molten stuff combine into gold-foil wrapped giandujottino tourinot. The truly chocolate-fixated can follow several city trails, taking in shops such as Gerla and Peyrano on Corso Vittorio Emanuele. In March the Cioccolatò chocolate festival takes place all over the city.

Al Bicerin is where the thick hot chocolate drink, bicerin was born. The wood-panelled café in the cobbled medieval Piazza della Consolata could be the backdrop for all those movie moments when a priest downs an espresso then takes off on his Vespa. Antonio Carluccio heads to Al Bicerin like a homing pigeon when he returns to Turin. The choice of heavenly cafés is, in fact, so great that if you're determined to fit in as many of them as possible, time spent looking for Marilyn Monroe's shoes in the Museo Nazionale del Cinema might seem extravagant. Nip into the museum, in the Mole Antonelliana, just to be awe-struck by the lift and the scope of the exhibits - film sets, cameras, props, posters. But it's just as impressive from the outside; the slender spire on what was originally built as a synagogue is Turin's highest monument.

The city has more than its share of contemporary art. But the one gallery I wouldn't have missed is the Pinacoteca Giovanni and Marella Agnelli, housed in architect Renzo Piano's container-like eyrie suspended above the former Fiat factory at Lingotto. The collection of only 25 works includes Canalettos, Manets, a handful of Matisse paintings, and fittingly, Italian Futurists like Balli. Le Corbusier considered the 1930s building, once Europe's largest factory, a masterpiece of industrial architecture; now it's a hotel, mall, leisure complex, and exhibition space. There's still a test driving circuit on the factory roof.

Before motor industry testosterone kicked in, Al Bicerin was run by women. Another of the most famous cafès, Baratti & Milano, was also where young ladies felt at home. With its orange tablecloths, flowery painted glass panels, and the counter selling coloured sweets called rosolio, it remains far more feminine than Cafè Mulassano.

At Caffè San Carlo, statues of nymphs in flowing gowns survey a white table-clothed buffet table laden with antipasti. Many of the cafés turn into bars come the evening. Another buffet table at the art nouveau Caffè Platti, stomping ground of the haute bourgeoisie, is known for its stuzzichini, an antipasti selection offered free with aperitivi.

A plaque on Piazza Castello marks the spot where white wine blended with herbs and spices became vermouth. Martini was followed by Campari, Cinzano, and the driest of them all, Punt e Mes. Even teetotalers can join the aperitivi scene. Alcohol-free Aperol has the bitter orangey taste of a grown-up appetite sharpener.

In Turin, drinking aperitivi and putting away the free canapés that are offered with them, is a tradition that can turn dinner into an irrelevance. Being British, it's hard not to approach the nibbles like a Garfunkel's salad bar, helping yourself to all you can eat because it's included in the price of drinks. Italians would never do anything as unseemly. Vineria Tre Galli, an offshoot of the Tre Gallini restuarant, has beautifully arranged wooden platters of salumerie and cheeses, bruschetta and tramezzini (small sandwiches), even home-made crisps that are a prelude to dinner.

"Italy is parochial," admits Antonio Carluccio, who as a visiting expatriate doesn't always relish some of Turin's culinary innovation. At Combal 0, Davide Scabin turns every trick in the avant garde chef's book. The setting - a glass box on the outer wall of the Castello di Rivoli - is stunning. This, one of the dozen royal palaces in and around Turin, is 12km outside the city and a dramatic conversion with sheets of glass between the castle walls has turned it into a contemporary art gallery. Combal 0 mirrors the castle conversion. Bare tables, Japanese crockery and an endless procession of foams, jellies, seaweed and deconstructed, miniature versions of the familiar dishes like vitello tonnato. Nothing is straightforward. Food comes in containers as varied as a phial and a baked-on terracotta shell, which must be smashed to get at the contents. Those who complete the marathon tasting menu are rewarded with a helium balloon tied to their chair. It is not Carluccio's idea of Piedmontese gastronomy.

For that, go to the lovely Gardenia even further from the city. The Michelin-starred restaurant in an elegantly converted farmhouse in the Canavese wine region. Highlights of a lunch with winter sun streaming through the windows from the vine-entwined terrace included a cardoon soufflé with bagna cauda sauce, truffles and courgette flowers, intensely yellow pasta with duck liver sauce, and a zabaglione. And not far away, on the route up to the Alps, the unintentionally shabby chic Castello di Agliè is reassuring evidence that not everything in and around Turin has been titivated for the Winter Olympics.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Turin is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick (and, exceptionally for the Winter Olympics, Heathrow); Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Luton. You can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org); the environmental cost of a return flight from London to Turin, in economy class, is calculated to be £5. The cash is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects. Alternatively, travel by rail via Paris; the journey time is under 10 hours.

EATING & DRINKING

Ristorante del Cambio, Piazza Carignano 2 (00 39 011 54 6690).

Guido Gobino, Via Cagliari 15B (00 39 011 247 6245; www.guidogobino.it).

Al Bicerin, Piazza della Consolata 5 (00 39 011 436 9325; www.bicerin.it).

Barratti & Milano, Piazza Castello 29 (00 39 011 440 7138).

Caffè Mulassano, Piazza Castello 15 (00 39 011 547 990).

Caffè San Carlo, Piazza San Carlo 156 (00 39 011 53 2586; www.caffesancarlo.it).

Caffè Platti, Via Vittorio Emanele II 72 (00 39 011 506 3056; www.platti.it).

Tre Galli, Via San Agostino 25 (00 39 011 521 6027).

Posto, Via LaGrange 34 (00 39 011 566 0709).

Caffè San Tommaso, Via San Tommaso 10 (00 39 011 53 42 01).

Combal. 0, Castelo di Rivoli (00 39 011 956 5225).

Gardenia, Corso Torino 9, Caluso (00 39 011 983 2249).

VISITING THERE

Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Via Montebello 20 (00 39 011 812 56 58; www.museonazionaledelcinema.org); 9am-8pm daily except Mon (to 11pm on Sat), €5.20 (£3.70).

Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Via Nizza 230, Lingotto (00 39 011 006 2713; www.pinacoteca-agnelli.it); 10am-7pm daily except Mon, €4 (£3).

Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art (00 39 011 956 5222; www.castellodirivoli.it). Open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Thursday, until 9pm Friday-Sunday; €6.50 (£4.60).

Castello di Agliè, Piazza Castello 1, Agliè (00 39 012 433 0102; www.ambienteto.arti.beniculturali.it); 8.30am-6.30pm daily ex Mon, €4 (£3).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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