The Italians have a reputation for not being able to do a thing before having their espresso coffee in the morning. Being Italian, I can say that this is not just a generalization. My coffee-addiction drives me every morning to Caffè Converso in the historical center of Bra, a small town located in the hills south of Piedmont in Northern Italy.
Without a doubt, Bra still holds a hint of yesteryear, with its aged two-storied houses and its narrow paved streets. Time often seems to stand still in this country town of 30,000. As far as I know, all the people here come from peasant families, and many are content to leave things as they have always been. As a consequence, the town has been left behind by the progress experienced by bigger cities in the region. But as strange as it may seem, this has its advantages: not only have the historical buildings maintained their original charm, but local cuisine and eating habits have remained much the same over the last hundred years.
Dating back to 1902, Caffè Converso is a good example of how this food tradition has been preserved. The founder, Felice Converso, came from a dynasty of pasticcieri, or confectioners. Brothers Federico and Alessandro Boglione, Converso’s current owners, carry on that treasured tradition today. They have carefully restored much of the original furnishings, from mirrors and boiseries to the marble tables and wooden counter, yet the atmosphere has not changed much since the café opened over a century ago.
Caffè Converso is a cozy place, with one room for the patisserie, and the other room for the bar. Every time I go in, I have the impression of stepping back in time. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see an elegant couple of a century ago, dressed up for the opening night at the local theater, sipping their coffees from china cups.
The aroma of coffee is omnipresent throughout the day in the café. My favorite breakfast features coffee and a croissant, which confectioner Alessandro makes himself. It’s a buttery jam-filled confection glazed with a veil of honey. I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to face the day without this treat, now so essential to me and most of the other people who daily crowd the café for a cup of coffee or a delicious small pastry. Others are drawn by the hot chocolate or bicerin, made up of coffee, and melted chocolate and cream.
It is during the summer season when Caffè Converso truly comes into its own. In a feast for all senses, tantalizing cakes topped with fresh fruits, and chantilly pastries are on show on the counter in the patisserie room. My favorites are the small pastries resembling miniature tarts, filled with sweet custard and topped with redcurrants. I always feel guilty when eating them because they are so tiny that it is almost a shame to ruin their perfection.
Winter is the perfect season for panettone, a typical Piedmontese Christmas cake filled with raisins and candied peel. Converso has changed the traditional recipe a bit, adding Moscato wine to the ingredients. The result has become so popular that Bra locals and visitors must reserve their annual panettone well before Christmas if they want to share Converso’s masterpiece with all their family and friends, accompanying it, of course, with rich hot chocolate.
If You Go
Via Vittorio Emanuele II 199
Tel: +39 0172 413626