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Tripe, the Variety of Italian Life

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ah, the tripe sandwiches of Florence. They may not be as inspirational as Brunelleschi's church of San Lorenzo or Filippo Lippi's "Madonna and Child With Two Angels" in the Uffizi Gallery, but they still belong on the itinerary of travelers who are seeking a three-dimensional view of the city and its life.

Anyone who visits the main covered market, the Mercato Centrale, will be struck by the seemingly disproportionate number of trippai -- butchers selling nothing but what we Americans coyly refer to as "variety meats" and what Italians (especially Florentines) sometimes call the quinto quarto (fifth quarter) of the animal. Snowy or russet carpets of tripe from all four of the cow's stomachs dominate the displays, but you can also feast your eyes on elegant arrangements of ears, hoofs, cheeks, muzzles, udders, and other internal and external body parts that are so sadly neglected in many cuisines.

I say "sadly" because when properly cooked, these meats are delicious. And when it comes to preparing them, Florentines certainly know what they're doing. Think of the best corned beef you've ever had: tender, mild yet flavorful, unctuous without being overtly fatty. That is tripe at its best. And no, it doesn't taste rank or livery or funky -- not when experts have been in charge of preparing it and have taken the time to do it right.

Of course, you can order tomatoey trippa alla fiorentina in many of the city's trattorias and not a few of its fancier restaurants -- including, now and then, the wonderful Cibreo, where you may also get a little dish of tripe salad with your aperitif, or you can sit down at one of the marble tables at the well-known Nerbone in the Mercato Centrale. But to eat like a local, join the line of office workers, lawyers and bricklayers at lunchtime at one of the specialist carts parked on sidewalks and in piazzas.

Some, like the one operated by Sergio Pollini outside Cibreo, serve just a few variations on the theme, such as long-simmered lampredotto -- from the cow's fourth stomach (the honeycomb tripe we see in the States is from the second stomach); vividly seasoned tripe salad; and perhaps a daily special. Others offer a wider variety of platters and panini and provide a place to rest your elbows for a few minutes while you're eating.

A fine, though by no means unique, example of this more elaborate sort of tripe wagon is the one run by Mario Albergucci, stationed weekdays (except in August) at the Piazzale di Porta Romana. To get there, head down Via Romana, the street leading from the Ponte Vecchio past the Pitti Palace; at the 14th-century Porta Romana you will also have an opportunity to see some of the last remaining fragments of the medieval city wall. Albergucci can make you a panino or a platter of regular tripe, lampredotto, poppa (udder -- cooked for nearly eight hours to melting tenderness) or nervetti (tendons -- more a texture than a flavor experience). In true Florentine style, he'll also put together a sandwich of lampredotto with vegetables in season, such as leeks or artichokes. He also has "regular" simmered meats -- bollito misto -- if none of your companions can be convinced of the virtues of the fifth quarter. His cunningly designed truck/kitchen, in immaculate stainless steel, has two foldout counters equipped with napkin dispensers (indispensable). My substantial lampredotto panino cost about $4.25.

Typically, tripe wagons offer a couple of options for their sandwiches: salt and pepper, natch; salsa verde (a green sauce commonly made with parsley, capers, garlic and anchovies, among other ingredients); and salsa piccante (basically, chili oil). Also, you can opt to have the roll briefly dipped ( bagnato ) in the cooking broth. I am a tripe lover of long standing but until recently have not been familiar with Florentine tripe-cart etiquette. So when ordering, I left it to the experts: I ordered, for instance, a panino di lampredotto, condito al gusto suo -- a lampredotto sandwich garnished "the way you like it." I'm not sure it was flawless Italian, but the message got across.

Tripe vendors are a long-standing fixture of Florentine life, but doomsayers worry that their days are numbered, with a new generation of Italians having discovered transalpine (and transatlantic) street foods from hot dogs to hamburgers. I don't see them disappearing anytime soon, but on your next visit to Florence be sure to line up for a sandwich, just in case.

-- Edward Schneider

Florentine tripe stands are generally open from 8:30 or 9 a.m. to 6:30 or 7:30 p.m. All are closed on Sundays and many on Saturdays, as well as for all or part of August. A few to try:

? Mario Albergucci, Piazzale di Porta Romana.

? Sergio Pollini, Via dei Macci near the Borgo La Croce (outside the restaurant Cibreo).

? Il Trippaio di Firenze, Via Maso Finiguerra near Via Palazzuolo (near the railway station).

? Marco Bolognesi, Via Gioberti near Piazza Beccaria.

? Trippaio, Via Dante Alighieri near Via dei Cerchi.

Or you can sample tripe dishes at two well-known Florence restaurants: Cibreo (122 Via dei Macci, 011-39-055-234- 1100) and Nerbone (Mercato Centrale, 011-39- 055-219-949).

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