When my brother Kyrie moved to Florence, I took the first chance to visit him. I have been to the city many times since, but on the first trip I had clear expectations of that weekend: I would see the paintings in the Uffizi, drink a Negroni at Harry’s Bar, and stroll through the mustard-lit Via Camilia at night, en route to a smart trattoria where we would dine on marbled-steak and tiramisu. What I had not expected my brother to do, was to introduce me to a tripe sandwich I think of at least once a week, and pretty much flipped these expectations on their stomach.
In the foreign imagination, Italian food is simple and fresh, and most importantly, it is comforting. Mention the cuisine to someone in England and it’s unlikely they will conjure images of the panino lampredotto – a sandwich composed of tripe stewed in a tomato and herb sauce, chopped and squashed into a bread roll and doused in a hot salsa verde (made with smashed parsley, garlic, capers, and anchovies). But it is as authentic as Florentine traditional dining gets. The lampredotto is a local specialty, and the city’s original fast food.
There are lampredotto carts, or Trippaio, all over the city, but the one Kyrie visits is the famous Pollini in Sant’Ambrogio. This quarter is known as the last truly local part of the centre, where the accent is different (they don’t say the second hard ‘c’ in Coca Cola) and the market feels useful. My brother had a tough sell the first time around. We drank too much beer the night before, and if Florence’s humid summers make eating at noon unbearable, a spicy tripe sandwich doesn’t sound too appetising on a hangover. But he insisted it was the food he missed the most when back at home in England. “More than the steak and schiacciata?” I asked him, with some surprise. “Yes” he replied: “More than both of those!”
Well, if you can’t trust your brother, who can you trust? He’s been adopted by his new home now, and walks the streets with the confidence of an honorary Florentine. Some of the folks in the area smile back as he wanders past the cafes and bakeries, and the tough looking men at the lampredotto cart recognise him too. He is in his element ordering tripe sandwiches in Florence; a simple act that marks him out as the inquisitive foreigner – somebody who has taken extra care in understanding what his neighbours eat for lunch. He asks the vendor for a lampredotto with the salsa verde. I follow his lead. “It is molto, molto piccante,” the vendor explains to me, worried that my ghost-white complexion will turn as red as the city’s rooftops. But I’m stubborn.
The vendor is not wrong. After the first bite, I begin choking on bits of tripe, sweating violently and running back for a bottle of water. “Piccante?” he says, laughing. And he has a point. But I’m not giving up on this sandwich. Sure, it is unglamorous, spicy, and sloppy, and it smells like a meaty belch; but it was also delicious. The lampredotto may have enacted its revenge on my fragile English stomach, but the flavours are unlike anything I ever associated with Italian cuisine (it is similar, I think, to Rome’s great tripe dish: the ethically dubious pajata). Perhaps because of this, in the queue at Pollini, the local Florentines wait beside migrants and refugees from Africa. It remains an affordable working-class utility meal, cherished by a city whose rougher edges are obscured by its glittering past. Florence might be known for The Renaissance, but it is also the home of the bone-grinding Calcio Storico sport. The lampredotto resides in that grittier version of Florence, and is perhaps why few tourists find it.
Or maybe, this is why not enough Florentines recommend it. For evident reasons, the sandwich still seems as secretive as the city’s grand courtyards. Ask a local what to eat, as I have done on many occasions, and they often mention the crowd-pleasers: the bistecca, finocchiona, or a schiacciata panino. These are all Tuscan (and all unbearably delicious) but none are specific to the city itself. Upstairs in the touristic San Lorenzo market, the sad lampredotto man, lost in the comforts of southern pizza-pasta, has a hard time selling his wares from the piping cauldron of stewing guts. I have a theory he’s just there as an ambassador for Florence; like a human flagpole. But downstairs, in the real San Lorenzo market, there are long queues at the stellar L. Nigro, whose gutsy menu could satisfy the walking dead.
I love all of it. The sign of a great cuisine is how it reinterprets the cheaper cuts of meat, and in Florence it is perfected – without irony – to an art form. It’s also a funny contrast to consider as you pass through the delicate streets, where the buildings look like shelf-ornaments and people wear Boggi suits on gauche cafe terraces: the liberal culture of this entire continent, Europe, all its art and taste, was sparked by the dreams of the people who live by the river Arno. I like to assume that they enacted many of those contributions on a diet of spicy cow stomachs.
But aside from all of this – all of these ponderings about its place in Florentine culture – the lampredotto reminds me of how happy it makes my brother. Waiting at Pollini, rubbing shoulders with his postman and butcher, seems to be his way of connecting with his community. When they hear his accent, I notice the other customers gesturing with approving smiles. It’s a feeling I recognise in myself back home in London, spotting a tourist in one of our disappearing, traditional pie houses. They know that Kyrie could be taking me anywhere in Florence right now – in any of the city’s fancy trattorias, feasting on squid ink pasta, or salt-ashed bistecca and tiramisu. (And tomorrow, we will be doing that.) But today, we’re here with them: devouring a dripping, spicy offal sandwich out of a cart, right by the steps of an old church.
It’s not the lampredotto’s fault Florence is so sophisticated.