In which Dan Morey braves hunger and the wrath of waiters to pacify his mother
I enjoy travelling with my mother, but choosing a restaurant we agree on can be difficult.
In Florence, she found fault with every trattoria we passed.
“Not enough people.”
“Too many people.”
“I don’t like the tablecloths.”
However, all was not lost. The streets of Florence offer other delicacies.
The Arcane Mysteries of Lampredotto
We spotted a lampredotto (tripe) cart, and went over to investigate. The vendor slopped some pink meat onto a roll smeared with green sauce, dipped the whole thing in broth, and handed it to a customer. When the guy chomped down, juice squirted all over his chin. Mother cringed.
Lampredotto is considered the Cadillac of tripe, since it’s taken exclusively from the cow’s fourth — and most tender — stomach. It has a taste that people often refer to as “acquired.” How long it takes to make this acquisition, they don’t say. The vendor offered me a sample. I found it slightly bland, with a soft, almost delicate texture. The dominant sauce flavors were garlic and anchovy. I looked at Mother.
“Forget it,” she said. “I’m not eating cow guts in the street.”
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (when in Florence…)
An hour later, we finally located Mother’s ideal Tuscan restaurant. The lighting was subdued, and there wasn’t a bad tablecloth in sight. A waiter brought us a basket of bread.
“We’re here for the Florentine steak,” I said.
“But first we want to know what it is,” said Mother.
He answered our questions patiently. It seemed the famed Bistecca alla Fiorentina, advertised on every menu-board in town, is essentially a porterhouse or T-bone steak cut from Chianina cattle, grilled quickly, and served rare.
“I like mine medium-well,” said Mother.
The waiter made every effort not to fall over.
“This would not be Bistecca alla Fiorentina,” he said. “This would be something else.”
“Oh. I don’t know then.”
He gave her his best Marcello Mastroianni smile and said, “Trust me. You like.”
Mother is a sucker for Italian men, and he returned a half hour later with a mountain of rare meat.
“Smells good,” said Mother, admiring her cut.
“Like fresh kill,” I said.
She raised her hand, trying to attract the waiter’s attention. I told her to put it down.
“Because you’re going to ask him for A-1 sauce. If you ask him for A-1 sauce, he’ll alert the manager. After the manager laughs at us, he’ll call a bouncer — a very large bouncer — who will come to our table and physically remove us from the restaurant. As we’re picking ourselves up from the pavement, he will recommend that we go over to McDonald’s for a nice American ham-burger. He will pronounce it in exactly that way — ham-burger.”
She signalled the waiter.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“That was a very informative lecture, but all I wanted was a napkin.”
A Primitive Repast – Paleo addicts, eat your heart out…
Chianina cattle are huge, and so are the steaks they end up as. Mine had roughly the same proportions as a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. I ate slowly at first, savouring each dripping morsel. Then, as the animal’s blood mingled with my saliva, an ancient impulse awakened. It drove me to chew faster, tearing at the gory flesh until every shred was gone. When a busboy came to clear the table, I hunched protectively over the remaining gristle.
“That was the best steak I ever had,” said Mother. “But there’s no way I can finish it.”
She handed the busboy her plate with half a slab still on it. I jabbed my fork into the carcass and snatched it away from him.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Mother. “You’re sweating.”
I spat out a bone and grunted.
The Fabled Kebabs of Florence
On our final evening in Florence, I found myself combing the streets with Mother once again, searching for a perfect Tuscan ristorante.
“Look how long that waiter’s hair is — it’ll get in the food.”
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went over to a kebab stand and ordered a lamb kebab with extra hot sauce. Kebabs are cheap shawarma sandwiches. They sell them all over Florence in joints with names like “Mesopotamia” and “Istanbul.” Mother doesn’t care for kebabs; they’re greasy and overstuffed and always drip on her shirt.
“What’s going on?” she said.
The cashier handed me a steaming pocket of muttony goodness.
“I’m feeding myself,” I said. “If I keep looking for restaurants with you, I’ll starve.”
“Well, I’m not eating that crap.”
“Be quiet,” I said. “You’ll offend him.”
The cashier laughed. “It’s true. This meat is very crappy. You want a salad, lady?”
“What’s in it?”
“It’s like a fattoush, you know. Onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon juice, cloves…”
“Cloves? Maybe I better just have what he’s having.”
“Okay, lady. It’s your bowels.”
We took our kebabs back to the apartment and ate them in front of the TV.
“What a wonderful last night in Tuscany,” said Mother, slopping tahini sauce on her pants. “The finest cuisine in the world, and I’m chewing on a sheep taco.”
“So is half of Florence,” I said.
Some Places to Eat in Florence (not necessarily with your mother)
Lampredotto: This classic Florentine street food, popular since the 15th century, can be purchased from carts (trippai) throughout the old town. One of the best, Trippaio del Porcellino, is located on the southwest corner of the New Market. If you don’t want to eat in the street, try Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. The buffet features a gourmet lampredotto station.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina: Florentine steak is on the menu at many restaurants. Before ordering, make sure the cut actually comes from a Chianina cow. Steaks from lesser cattle will be cheaper, but they won’t be Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The best restaurants grill in the traditional way — over wood. At the Osteria Caffe Italiano (Via Isola delle Stinche 11R-13R) you can watch the butcher cut your steak.
Kebab: Kebabs are extremely popular in Florence, especially among young people. Istanbul Doner Kebab (Via de Benci 18R, near Santa Croce) serves some of the finest.
Things to do in Florence