“I’ve eaten rotten, filthy food that I knew would make me sick on many occasions just to be a good guest.”
~ Anthony Bourdain
As I mentioned in my last post, Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, heads to Piemonte tomorrow (May 8) to sample food and culture of the region. I’ll be interested to see where he goes and what he eats. I’ve read that he’s going to visit Del Cambio, and Caffè al Bicerin, two of Torino’s oldest restaurants. I’ve only been to Caffè, and that visit was just accidental. (More on that in a minute)
During my first—and only, to date—trip to Piemonte in 2013, I was still under the impression that the Italian food I grew up with was the food all Italians ate. I had just started my journey to citizenship and was on the cusp of immersing myself in the language, the history, and the culture. In other words, I had a lot to learn.
Bicerin (pronounced bee-chair-EEN) is a traditional hot coffee and chocolate drink in Torino. Named for the small, round glass (bicerin) in which it was first served, bicerin has three distinct layers—chocolate, espresso, and cream. Legend has it that Caffè al Bicerin started serving the drink around 1704 or 1705.
We first heard of bicerin on the Red Bus Tour in Torino one cold morning. The guide mentioned what sounded like “peachering” and said if we wanted to warm up after the cold and damp ride, we should order the drink. He pointed us in the direction of the Caffè as we got off, and we entered a very dark, old, and crowded cafe. We were lucky to find seats and ordered our drinks still not quite knowing what we would end up with.
Bicerin is a rich, comforting drink. It is not as sweet as you would think since the bottom layer is drinking chocolate—bittersweet chocolate mixed with milk. It adds a depth of flavor to the espresso that brings out warmth and bitterness. Add in the swirl of whipped real cream on top, and the bit of sweetness cuts the acidity and balances the flavors perfectly.
Where’s the Beef?
Because that drink was so rich, there was no way we could eat lunch that day, so we were starving by the time we headed to Eataly that evening. As you probably know, Eataly is a market, a bookstore, an enoteca, a bakery, a store, a school, a good court, where you can find all things Italian. What you might not know is that the original Eataly opened in Torino in 2007, and as luck would have it, the original one was a block away from our hotel.
The Eataly in Torino had a number of restaurants in it (I assume it still does, but remember I was there in 2013.), and we decided we wanted to try Carni, the meat restaurant on that particular evening. On the menu, which was only in Italy, we saw a number of items, the only one of which I knew being pollo arrosto (roast chicken). (As a reminder, I spoke Spanish at the time and could only understand Italian words that were the same or similar.)
“What is this?” Mike asked me pointing to manzo crudo. I had no idea.
“What does this mean?” Mike asked me about a menu item.
“I have no idea,” I replied. I turned my attention to the gal at the counter. “Parla inglese?” I asked her.
“Qué es?” I asked her in Spanish what that item was with hopes that she understood.
“MIT,” she shouted back.
“Mit? Meat?” I wondered. She nodded. “No horse?” I neighed.
“No,” she said. “Mit. Mit.”
“I think it’s beef,” I told him. “Crudo must mean that it’s rough cut.”
“Beef is safe,” he said.
“Grilled chicken is safer,” I said ordering the chicken for me and the “mit’ for Mike. I added in two Prosecco because I had the feeling I was going to need it.
We took our wine and went to the table to wait. Quite quickly they brought Mike’s “mit.”
“What the hell is that?” I asked. We both stared at the plate. I started laughing, and the waiter just stood there. “Parla inglese?” I spit out.
“No.” How did I know? Also, at that particular minute, I forgot all five words of Italian I knew.
“Look,” Mike pleaded with him, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t know what I ordered. Can you cook this?”
“No,” the waiter replied. I was laughing and trying to remember how to say anything in Italian. The waiter continued, “Hamburger kook. NO gobbledy- gook. Usa lime e sale.” He pointed at the lemon, mound of salt and lump of meat on Mike’s plate, twirled his finger and then walked away. A few minutes later, a different waiter brought my chicken which was, thankfully, cooked.
Mike, who hadn’t even touched the plate holding the raw meat, tried to reason with that waiter.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said pointing to the plate. “Can you cook this?”
“Parla inglese?” I asked that guy almost simultaneously.
“No.” Of course not.
“Boss? Manager? Chef?” Mike asked. The guy mumbled something, looked to his left and right, and then walked away. We figured he was going to get the manager or someone who could speak more than two words of English.
Five minutes passed, and we could see the waiters for that section—including our two—avoiding our area. If we turned our heads towards them, they turned around and walked a different way. Finally, the first guy had to bring food to the table next to us. Mike got his attention.
“Please, can you cook this?” Mike asked. “I can’t eat raw meat.”
“Caldo, per favore.” I finally remembered the word for hot. (I do have to admit that I was laughing so hard that I could barely remember English words let alone Italian words. I should get a pass on this.)
“No. Gobbledy-gook,” he said pointing at Mike’s plate. “Hamburger caldo.“
“Can I change? Mike was ready to beg. He motioned a change with his hands.
“Caldo. Caldo.” I was trying to help.
“You? Hamburger?” he asked. Mike nodded, and the kid grabbed the plate and walked away.
“He’s saying, ‘Stupid Americans,'” I laughed.
Ten minutes later, he brought the hamburger.
“At least it’s cooked a little more,” Mike said of the quite rare burger.
“Does it taste all right?” I asked.
“It’s okay,” Mike replied. “At least it’s cooked.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the second waiter watching us. He never approached our area again until after we left. I don’t know if he was afraid of what we would ask or was concerned that I would burst out laughing every few minutes.
“We’re having pizza tomorrow night,” Mike said as we left.
I burst out laughing.
Carne Cruda…Manzo Crudo
As you probably figured out and as I quickly learned, crudo in the dish’s name did not mean that the mean was roughly cut. It meant that it was raw. I learned quickly that carne cruda is a popular dish in Piemonte. The Italian version of France’s steak tartare, carne cruda is high-quality beef simply seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper, lemon, and olive oil.
I bet Stanley tries it tonight.