It’s late on a summer Sunday evening in Turin, a city of one million people located in the northern region of Piedmont. I’m seated in a bar called Affini, in the San Salvario district, on a mission of sorts. I’m sampling the “Nuvolari” – a cocktail created by one of Turin’s foremost mixologists, Michele Marzella – in honour of iconic Italian racer Tazio Nuvolari. With me is restaurateur David Pinto, owner of Anselmo Torino 1857, an artisanal vermouth distiller.
“The Torinese are hard-working people,” he tells me in Italian. “The mindset is industrial; in the 1960s, the automobile factories attracted all kinds of immigrants from all over Italy to Turin. They like to create and invent.”
Turin is Italy’s Motor City. Like Detroit, it is inextricably tied to the automobile. Although its days as a mecca for automobile design and manufacturing have passed, it retains the vitality and ambition that made it the first capital of a unified Italy and the headquarters for FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino).
Some people knock car culture – citing congestion, pollution and frustration – but “car cities” such as Detroit and Turin have unique personalities. They project an industrial aesthetic that’s reflected in an adventurous approach to art and culture. The way farming communities have an affinity for the land, a car city’s population has a bond with machines and automation. There’s a reason that Detroit, the world’s most famous car city, was the birthplace of both the Motown sound and techno.
In Turin, the only place for a real car lover to stay is the DoubleTree by Hilton Turin Lingotto, a hotel that is located in part of the former 800,000-square-foot FIAT factory which opened in 1926 and was in operation until 1982. It was this factory that changed Turin from an agricultural economy into an industrial one. In its heyday, 12,000 blue collar workers and 500 white collar workers worked three shifts in a continuous cycle.
The Lingotto factory produced the famous FIAT 500 as well as the Torpedo and Topolino. The hotel was redesigned in 2018 and it is an homage to FIAT’s style and aesthetic. It’s part of a larger reconstruction that includes a shopping mall. Guests have access to the mall rooftop where they will find find la pista di collaudo (the test track), where FIAT would test drive their cars. The track was made famous in the classic British film The Italian Job.
The hotel is a destination for visitors from around the world who want to try out the rooftop track. When I tour the track, the hotel representative accompanying me refers not just to guests, but to cars. “We had 35 Jaguars last week,” she says. “Next week I believe we are having 42 BMWs.”
The Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile, which boasts more than 200 original automobiles, from 80 different brands, is a five-minute walk from the hotel. The museum opened in 1932 and offers an incredible collection of vehicles ranging from the earliest models – such as the 1854 Carrozza di Bardolino – to Formula 1. I’d set aside an hour and a half and wound up spending three.
There are many parallels between Detroit and Turin. Like Detroit (where you can get the best Lebanese food outside of Lebanon), Turin has a multicultural verve. In both cities, cars matter, even to people who aren’t interested in cars. Both are sports towns. In Detroit, you have the Red Wings, Lions, Pistons and Tigers. In Turin, Juventus and Torino AC.
The Slow Food Movement was founded in Bra, Piedmont, but it was in Turin where that movement was given the “automotive treatment” – transformed into the world’s first Eataly, a supermarket that offers high-quality Italian staples and delicacies. It’s now a worldwide chain and Canada’s Eataly is set to open this fall in Toronto.
Both Detroit and Turin are cocktail cultures, which is how I arrive at Affini, a bar that honours Turin’s past by celebrating the racing tradition. The connection between vermouth and the automobile is industrialization. “Vermouth had been made for centuries but it was in Turin where the discovered to distill is so that it could be exported,” Pinto tells me. “For the Torinese, everything is about innovation, that’s why the automobile was so important and appealing. We are more reserved than Italians in the south. But piano, piano [which in English translates as ‘little by little’] you glimpse what’s inside and what you see is real.”
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