For the Love of Tripe


I've never made any secret of my enthusiasm for tripe, the stomach lining of cows. As a member of the Organ Meat Society (a group of offal-loving friends in New York City), I order tripe every chance I get; as an amateur chef, I make trippa alla fiorentina for my guests. So, when I visited Central Italy this summer, locating the best tripe was a priority. One candidate was Nerbone, a stall on the southwest corner of Florence's sprawling Central Market. The small café is set among vendors selling flayed bunnies, aged balsamics, Pecorinos, dried porcinis, and the area's world-famous Chianina beef. (One stall devotes itself exclusively to raw, washed tripe.) Founded 1872, Nerbone boasts a cramped line of trestle tables, and the place closes by two in the afternoon. Nerbone's specialty is panino con bollito--boiled beef sandwich dipped in meat juices--but I couldn't resist the tripa alla Fiorentina. The proprietor pulls the shredded organ out of a big vat and dumps it on a plate, ladles on extra gravy, adds grated Parmesan, then plops the plate on a paper-covered tray, onto which he also throws slices of artisanal bread.

The first thing I noticed was that, in contrast to the tomatoey versions of Florentine tripe you encounter in New York, the sauce at Nerbone was mainly dark salty veal broth, with only enough fresh tomatoes to produce red highlights in the gravy. And the stomach itself, which the obsessed Italians micro-divide into four types according to texture (rumine, reticolo, centopelle, and ricciolata), had been washed so thoroughly that the sometimes off-putting aroma was obliterated. The texture was alternately slick, chewy, and glove-soft. I was amazed, and sucked it down in seconds, mopping the plate clean with the bread. A week later, just north of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, I tested Nerbone's only real challenger: a place listed in Slow Food's Osterie & Locande D'Italie, called Matricianella. The menu features the salt cod and fried artichokes characteristic of Roman-Hebraic cuisine, but also the organ dishes beloved of all Romans, including the fabled rigatoni pajata: tubular pasta with a spicy tomato sauce made with (as the menu notes rather poetically in its English translation) "baby lamb bowels." When the tripe arrived, I was pleasantly shocked. The sauce was thick and red, in a way that made it look like the Florentine tripe I'd had in New York. Through the mantle of dried cheese I could make out shredded green leaves, which I assumed were arugula, whose bitterness would help cut the rich oiliness of the tripe. But one bite, and I turned to my companion and whispered, "toothpaste." The leaves were fresh mint! Not a bad complementary flavor, I concluded as I fervently shoveled it down. Though less delicately flavored, Roman tripe is every bit as good as Florentine.

Nerbone Stand 292, Mercato Centrale, Florence (055-219949)
Matricianella 2-4 Via del Leone, Rome (066-832100)

Subscribe to Gourmet