Any time from about 11:30 in the morning until into the evening, small crowds of people can be seen standing around mobile kiosks on street corners or in squares dotted about the centre of Florence. With their boiling cauldrons, marble or glass counters and stools on the pavement, these kiosks attract students, bankers, housewives, bricklayers, pensioners and, more and more often, discerning tourists - all with one common desire. They are all impatiently awaiting for the trippaio (tripe seller) to hand them over a plate of fast food Florentine-style: a dish of tripe or steaming hot lampredotto roll.
A sight very seldom seen in other Italian cities, the trippaio has been selling his delicious snacks on Florentine streets for well over one hundred years and is an institution in the city. Today, some of the best known trippai include the trippaio del Porcellino found at the back of Piazza del Mercato Nuovo (commonly known as the Straw Market), Marione, situated inside the San Lorenzo Market and, my favourite, the father and son tripe dynasty, Sergio and Pierpaolo, who are strategically placed and unashamedly do a roaring trade outside one of Florence’s most fashionable restaurants near the market of Sant’ Ambrogio.
Sergio explained to me how he came into the game. ‘I worked’, he said, ‘in the retail clothing trade until a little over ten years ago when the pitch in via dei Macci became available. Of course, you can’t just set up anywhere you like but you have to wait until another trippaio retires or wants to give up his licence. As the idea of belonging to one of the ‘elite’ of the five or six trippai working within the walls of the old city had always appealed to me, I jumped at the chance. In fact, there has always been a stall on my site for over a century and, in the future, my son will be here to carry it on.’ He added the only downside he could see to the job was ‘when it’s freezing cold and pelting with rain’ but, then again, he reflected, ‘that’s when I do some of my best business’.
The trippaio’s work involves preparing and cooking tripe and lampredotto, once considered poor man’s fare but now a gastronomic delicacy. Tripe is the inner lining of the first of a cow’s four stomachs whereas lampredotto comes from the fourth and last stomach. Traditionally, lampredotto is said to take its name from the lampreda, a fish similar to an eel, because when it is cooked, it has the same dark colour and looks like the cooked fish. Although decidedly ugly in appearance, lampredotto is the softest and leanest part of the meat and is found exclusively on tripe kiosks only in Florence.
The basic equipment of the trippaio has changed over time thanks to the advent of the small mini-van instead of the heavy hand or pushcart he used to use for transporting his wares and portable gas or electric hot plates used for cooking instead of a glowing brazier. The end product has, nevertheless, remained the same. The trippaio spoons out a bowl of tripe or fishes a piece of lampredotto out of the one of the two pots of broth he has had on the boil since early morning, he cuts it into long strips, seasons it with salt and pepper, puts it in a roll which has been dipped in the broth, dresses it with either a little green or hot sauce and hands it to his customer in exchange for about 3 euro. The customer then usually washes this down with a glass of Chianti or a cold beer whilst exchanging opinions on the latest football scores or the upcoming elections with his neighbour sitting on the stool next to him.
In the past, Larousse Gastro-nomique tells us that the likes of Homer, William the Conqueror and Napoleon all enjoyed their tripe. However, in some parts of today’s overfed industrialised world, cooking offal has fallen from favour and there are even those who express ‘horror’ at the very idea of eating it. Despite this, tripe has always been a popular dish in Tuscany. Part of its appeal is that it can be prepared in a variety of different ways and it can be found on the menus of many typical restaurants and trattorie, one of the best known being the restaurant Bella Ciao, located just outside Florence. The most famous recipes include trippa alla fiorentina (tripe Florence-style) which is cooked in a tomato sauce, and the version from Lucca which has a butter and parmesan cheese base.
If, therefore, you have never tasted tripe or savoured a lampredotto roll, I recommend you do so because what you will be trying is nothing short of a true Florentine experience.
The exhibition opens at the Biblioteca Nazionale on May 3, 2006. During the same week the British Institute will be reading Hamlet (all readers welcome), showing film versions of the play and hosting other events. See www.britishinstitute.itfor the full programme of events.