Modern, usually "New World" cultures twinge at the thought of eating an animal in its entirety. Somehow in the last century, the notion of eating meat has been reduced primarily boneless, skinless breasts and perfectly manicured T-bone porterhouse steak cuts. It's as if we forgot that there were other tasty fibers within these beasts.
Few would guess that Florence is an offal hot spot, served at food stands and on menus around the city. For those of you not already on the nose-to-tail gravy train, offal is organs and innards, from the brain to the feet, with nerves and teat in between.
In Italian food—along with many other Old World cuisines, I suspect—less noble parts of the animals were historically served as a way for the peasants and less fortunate to be able to get a decent dose of protein in times of struggle and disparity. And it seems that in Florence, offal-eating is indeed alive and kicking.
Florence is most notable for lampredotto, which is the fourth section of a cow's stomach and is a dish specifically regional to Florence. Tripe—the first and second compartment of cows' stomachs—is strong in Florentine cuisine, but is diffused in other parts of Italy as well. Florentine street food is usually synonymous with food stands serving tripe and lampredotto panini. The only brick-and-mortar establishment whose menu is premised on offal, however, is Il Magazzino, an osteria in central Florence. They call themselves an "Osteria Tripperia" as a result.
Located in the Piazza della Passera, Il Magazzino serves up lampredotto-filled ravioli, lampredotto sushi, carpaccio di lingua (tongue carpaccio) tripe ragu spaghetti, fried lampredotto "meatballs," and other less conventional, meat-based Italian fare. Piazza della Passera is the black sheep of Florentine squares, believed to be named della passera after the slang word for certain wild lady parts. (Local legends say that a brothel used to occupy this piazza, hence the naughty name.)
The Osteria Tripperia began with a rather successful lithographer named Luca Cai who over time developed an allergy to his developing equipment—and thus, the physical inability to continue his trade. He left his day job to work at street food carts, slinging lampredotto and tripe into panini rolls to the Florentine lunch crowds for several years until one day, a light bulb in his head turned on. With his passion for cuisine and industry know-how for all things offal, he decided to open up the city's first offal-centric osteria in 2004.
Alessandro Caldini, one of the owners, tells me the Osteria was originally envisioned for the local Florentine community, under the impression that foreigners would not appreciate their offerings. They soon realized they were mistaken and that the curious community of diners extends all over the world. Now, they notice a client ratio of about half-local and half-foreign. The chef who handles all of the cow guts—Muca Bedri, originally from Albania—earned his culinary stripes in Florence working in restaurants and street food stands since he was a teen. Alessandro, who runs the front of house, joined Luca soon after Il Magazzino opened, and complemented Il Magazzino with his experience in gourmet food and wine sales. He runs the front of house and makes it his duty to maintain a jolly relationship with everyone who passes through, whether in Florence for a night or for life.
The themes for Il Magazzino's menu is fit for an episode of Bizarre Foods, but really deserves slow food status. Alessandro tells me that seasonality and traditional products of only the utmost quality are of high priority. They have their trusty meat supplier, their secret artisan pasta maker, and local farms to procure cheeses and seasonal vegetables. They also make a point of showcasing protected varieties of foods that they search personally for by visiting producers around the region and the country. You will find their lampredotto ravioli smothered in a flavorful sauce made from a precious variety of onions from the seaside town of Tropea in Calabria.
The story of Il Magazzino's "lampredotto sushi" comes from a stint that Luca spent working in an Italian restaurant in Japan, training the staff on how to prepare Tuscan cuisine. Inspired by his culinary adventure there, Luca infused his curiosity for their Old World cuisine with that of his own. The nori sheets and rice are rolled with shredded lampredotto, lightly tempura-fried and then touched with soy sauce; it is one of the establishment's most delightful culinary curiosities. For those less keen on being adventurous, they offer tasty twists on classics such as tender gnocchi with sweet candied tomatoes.
While offal is the backbone of their menu, their offerings change with the seasons. In the winter, you may find kale pesto with spaghetti, or eggplant parmigiana in the summer. There are also their antipasti finger foods: fried brie encrusted with sesame seeds and those fried lampredotto meatballs. Another score for Il Magazzino is their wine offering—the house wine at Il Magazzino comes not from a bag in a box poured into a carafe, but straight from a well-respected local producer.
Il Magazzino is so on top of their game that they're presenting at this year's World's Fair—the food-themed Milan Expo 2015. You'll find them until June 30 at the Eataly pavillion, serving trippa alla fiorentina (Florentine-style tripe), fresh pasta with duck ragu, and pici all'aglione (a traditional, thick round Tuscan pasta in a tomato and garlic sauce). Luca and Alessandro take weekly turns serving the world Il Magazzino's dishes based on historical recipes dating back hundreds of years.
When asked "What are your next inventions on the docket?", Alessandro remains modest and simply says that their plan is to focus on their solid relationship with the community and to continue to seek out small producers for their seasonal offal menu. Once a restaurant in Florence gains popularity, the service usually goes south—if it already wasn't questionable to begin with. But a culinary institution in the city who intends to foster a positive vibe with their dining community in light of their success is reason alone to stay tuned. It's all in the guts.