I’ve made a conscious decision to keep with the pretty part of Florence, the churches and monuments, and avoid the offal. For the moment.
After all, at this point in the recap, we’ve only been there for just over 12 hours taking in all that is lovely about Firenze. And as far as food goes, the biggest question is whether we’ll have gelato from Cantina del Gelato for breakfast, right?
The answer to that cliffhanger is no. Over breakfast at the hotel – JR’s consisting of cured meats, and mine consisting of yogurt and chocolate cake – nothing wrong with that, right? – we laid out our plan for the day. Sadly, it did not include gelato for breakfast or otherwise.
First, we had to, had to, had to go to the Brancacci Chapel, to see the frescoes on its walls, masterpieces of Renaissance painting that revolutionized painting with their use of color and perspective – plus realistic figures and backgrounds, which was entirely new in the 1400s (prior to this, religious paintings used gold leaf or 2-dimensional backgrounds, rather than realistic environments).
On each of our previous trips, we had been shut out – literally, one time the priest shut the door and told us that we had to come back at 3pm, only we were leaving Florence on a 2pm train. This time, I was determined that we would finally see the chapel.
Second, we had to go to the Mercato Centrale, Florence’s Central Market, where one can find everything from sundried tomatoes and packages of dried herbs, to tripe, to prosciutto, to fava beans, fish, and fresh pasta. It’s a bit overwhelming, primarily, I’m sure, because I don’t shop there on a regular basis, and I admit that I prefer the smaller Sant’Ambrogio market, which seems to have more actual farmers in attendance, but the Mercato Centrale would suit our needs, as we planned to pick up dinner ingredients for our arrival at the apartment that we had rented. The market closes at 2pm, which worked perfectly with our plan to hit the road by 3pm to arrive in southeastern Tuscany by 4:30.
Wherever we were on this trip to Italy, it seemed to be a lot about churches, and there is no shortage of churches in Florence. I apologize if churches weird you out in any way. Whatever your position on Catholicism, or religion in general, the Catholic church in Italy owns some of the most incredible art in the world, and we had to see at least some of it while there.
Just down the street from our hotel stood the small, 10th century church of SS Apostoli, which, according to an inscription near the door, was founded by Charlemagne. The piazza on which it sits is tiny, and is known as Piazza del Limbo, because it once housed a cemetery for unbaptized children. Now it houses a shop dedicated entirely to olives. Much more pleasant than limbo, that’s for sure.
The interior of the church was quiet, with time- and shoe-worn marble tombs on the floor, the pointed caps and flowing robes of this bishop or that archbishop burnished smooth and shiny, the Latin inscriptions for the most part still legible. Andrea della Robbia, the ceramics master whose influence is still felt in Italian ceramics today, created a tabernacle for the church, which resides on the left-hand aisle near the entrance.
A tour group shuffled into the church as JR and I made our exit, heading across the Arno to take in the Brancacci beauty. Oh, but first, we ended up at Santo Spirito, designed by Brunelleschi, and arrived there just in time to see Michelangelo’s wooden Jesus on the Crucifix before it was closed to the public for the day.
As you might imagine, we were falling a bit behind schedule with all this church-visiting and art-ogling, and then managed to get a bit confused as to where Santa Maria del Carmine, the church in which the Brancacci Chapel is located, is relative to Santo Spirito. It’s only about 2 minutes away, through the piazza where the Santo Spirito market is held, and then off to the right, which we finally figured out with a little help from iPhone maps. It’s an unimpressive facade, the exterior of Santa Maria del Carmine is, having been nearly completely destroyed by a fire in 1771 and rebuilt. Luckily for all of us, the chapel was spared.
The chapel is more stunning in person than in any photographs I had seen. The colors were bold, facial expressions intense, and the landscape and architecture fascinating. “Look, honey, THAT’s why in Italy the first floor is called the ground floor,” I said, pointing at the sealed-up first floors of the palazzi in the paintings. Back in the 1400s, the nobility and upper classes were worried, and rightfully so, it seems, about being attacked by their enemies, so for security reasons, the entrance to one’s house – or palace – was often on the second floor – which Italians call the first floor.
Boy, am I glad I didn’t live back then, I mean, I’d like to have been around to see the Renaissance unfold, but I am a disaster on a ladder, and really, really hate heights. Oh, but then, I guess I could have been a peasant, which would eliminate the whole climbing-to-safety-in-my-palace problem. That’d work.
Once JR was able to pull me away from the chapel – which I had photographed, recorded video of, and stood slack-jawed in front of, it was 1pm – T-minus 1 hour until the Mercato Centrale closed and left us without supplies for dinner.
Fava beans were in season in Italy, hence they were a must-get. We entered the market, I continued with my incessant photography, iPhonephotography, and videoography, until the clock was ticking down to the last fifteen.
A kindly, stout, and silver-haired produce vendor sold me the last of his (slightly sorry-looking) fava beans at a discount, donated two free tomatoes in addition to the three I requested, and handed me two giant heads of pungent – as in, you can smell it the second you remove a clove, peeled or no – garlic, all for 4 euro.
We then marched on to Pasta Fresca, where I lost my concept of a kilo, and proceeded to order 1 kilo (more than 2 pounds) of pici pasta, a pasta unique to Tuscany that resembles bucatini, only without the straw-like hole, and, then, defying logic as I had seen the ridiculous quantity of pici on the scale, I added a half kilo of pear and pecorino ravioli to the order. This loot ensured us at least 4 meals at home, and cost 9 euro.
I now had a recipe in mind from an old issue of Bon Appetit, which had been provided to them by a chef whose family lives in Orvieto. We needed sausage to round out the deal, and the sausage stand put us right next to Fratelli Perini, a for-real Charcutepalooza (I almost hashtagged that, btw).
In their small section of the market, they had more salumi, cured meats, cheeses, preserved, marinated, and brined foods than even my favorite (and big) Italian market at home. A veritable festival of Italian specialties, it was. We were hungry – it was nearly two o’clock, after all. There was a line of people ordering panini from the Brothers Perini. We did the sensible thing, and placed our order for a prosciutto panino (this is the one that was the counterman’s religion, you might recall from Part I of Amy and JR’s 24-hour Florentine Odessey).
It was delicious. It was enough for two. We were sated, it was time to get the car and head south. We walked out of the food market and into the goods market, a cacophony of “buena sera, signora”, even though it was daytime (which is giorno, not sera) from the aggressive vendors trying to foist their University of Florence sweatshirts, faux designer bags, and China-made Venetian masks upon everyone strolling down the aisle.
Oh, but wait. What’s that? A food cart – not a food truck – this was a bright red cart bearing the Slow Food emblem, and a decal indicating that Dario, the World’s Most Famous Tuscan Butcher, had provided them their meat? As if I would pass that up.
JR made some sort of a “for real?” face at me, then stood off to the side while I stood in line, looking at the list of panino, then at the woman preparing the panino. JR also looked at the list, and announced, “I am NOT having tripe. Anything but tripe.”
Tripe is a local specialty in Florence, as evidenced by how much of it is for sale in the Mercato Centrale. We saw no fewer than 3 trippa vendors, one of whom was also selling cow faces – yes, cow faces. Another tourist and I postured to get the best shot of the cow snout through the glass case, in fact, before JR reminded me that we had grocery shopping to do.
So I’m standing in line at the cart, looking at my options. Basically, the choice is trippa or lampredotto. And most everyone in line, including the family of four who cut the line in front of me (not atypical Italian behavior. Lines are tedious, after all, and they have la vita to make dolce asap – there is nothing sweet about waiting patiently in line.), ordered lampredotto. And so I settled on lampredotto. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but it wasn’t tripe, so I knew JR would be good with it.
A strange chill passed through my bones. While that family of four waited for their sandwiches, a nagging thought began to develop. I had heard of lampredotto before. I had. And my brain was slowly recalling that lampredotto might – just might – be brain.
I glanced at JR, who had set up camp at the corner of a building diagonally across from the bright red food cart. He was whistling to himself, looking skyward. He looked pretty happy, in fact. I started to sweat. Shit! What if lampredotto is brain? I dug through my giant pocketbook to try to find the silly little phrase book I keep with me for just this sort of occasion. Well, okay, not for this exact type of situation, but for minor, non brain-eating quandaries. Lampredotto was not an entry. I fidgeted, and sweated, and fidgeted some more. JR still looked very content, though now he appeared to be eyeballing University of Florence sweatshirts from afar. More to worry about. “Maybe he wants one.” “No, he can’t possibly want a tacky sweatshirt.” The little voices – there are two of them – in my brain had switched from worrying about eating brain for a moment. It was a welcome relief.
But then, my time was up. The family of four sauntered off with lampredotto and bottles of beer. I stepped up to the window, and placed my order. Un panino lampredotto, per favore. She asked if I wanted hot sauce (that’ll kill bacteria and mad cow, right?). Yes, I did. Lots of it, too. Parsley? Sure. Salt and pepper? Hell, every brain needs salt and pepper, doesn’t it? She then asked me if I was Americana. Si. Living here? No. Grandparents from here? Si, nonna’s family. Where? Napoli. She then made some very funny – to her, and to the guy standing on the short side of the cart enjoying his brain sandwich – comment about my Neapolitan bloodline, which I presume was something along the lines of, “You Americans with relatives from Naples are so clueless. Look at you, inadvertently ordering brains. Dumbass.”
I smiled broadly and walked away, hot-sauced, salted-and-peppered sandwich in hand.
JR still looked happy, all the more so because I had chatted up the brain-seller in Italian. “What did she say?” he asked. “Hell if I know,” I paused, “do you want to know what this is?” I held it up to his face, “does it look familiar?” This cow brain sandwich sure did look an awful lot like human brain – not that I’ve spent any time carving anyone’s skull to partake of brain a la Hannibal Lechter – but you know, from diagrams and shiz I’ve seen depicting the brain – still, I don’t think that JR was expecting the non-tripe option to be brain. The happy drained from his face, and he became very serious, “what is that?” “Do you remember the cow snout?” “Yes.” “Do you remember what was next to the cow snout?” “Awww, come on – brain?” “Yep. Brain,” another pause while he winced, and when the wince was over, I added flatly, “you said you didn’t want tripe.”
As we strolled back to the car, I managed to eat most of the sandwich, the entire time wondering if small holes would develop in my brain, eventually resulting in madness. Or maybe it was too late for that. And who would care, anyway? If I died in Tuscany, maybe JR could convince them – who “them” is, I’m not sure, but JR is very persuasive when he wants to be, “they” will stand no chance – to bury me in Santa Maria del Carmine next to the Brancacci Chapel. Might be a little much to ask for a peasant, but you never know.
So now we flash forward a couple of weeks. We’re home, I’m working on posts about Florence. I haven’t died, and don’t appear to have mad cow symptoms. So far, so good, right?
Well, for those of you who are not lampredotto aficionados – and you enthusiasts know who you are, your collective groaning over my ignorance identifies you and binds you together – it is important that you know that lampredotto is not brain.
I repeat: Is. Not. Brain.
In typical over dramatic (and maybe more than slightly moronic) fashion, I had believed that lampredotto was brain based upon my bad memory of a (possibly imaginary) phrase book definition, and the fact that the creasing of the raw lampredotto – placed next to the cow snout in the market, no less – conjured up thoughts of brain. Boy, was I ever self-satisfied with my culinary daring, eating brain like that!
Well, the daring eater bubble burst when I located a book on Florentine food on our bookshelves with a lampredotto reference.
It is, like the tripe on the little red cart’s menu, cow stomach. The difference from tripe is that lampredotto comes from the cow’s fourth stomach, rather than the first, tripe’s stomach of origin.
My head hung in shame, I confessed to JR.
“You know, I thought it had more of a tripe texture. Still, you won’t catch me eating that again. If I want to taste eggs, I’ll make eggs.”
Whether she said it or not, the woman at the cart was right – dumbass, indeed.