When you think of Italian food, you wouldn’t be wrong to think it is a cuisine that easily pleases. After all, who doesn’t like pizza or pasta or a plate full of vegetables or meat, the foods that make up Italy’s most traditional dishes? It is a country that seems to offer food everyone can love, even fussy kids. But there are some Italian foods that break through the normal category and into the weird. Most of these strange foods are made of the parts of the animal that are thrown out in many countries, but have a long tradition with the working class in Italy, especially in Rome.
In the Testaccio area of Rome it is easy to find plates of quinto quarto, or offal. This was where the city’s slaughterhouse was located between the years 1888 and 1975, a sprawling complex at the area’s western edge. The slaughterhouse employed many residents, and paid them a pittance substituted by meat. Since the finest cuts went to paying clients, the slaughterhouse owners gave its workers the cast-off parts: the tail, the intestines and the tripe. But the Roman women who received these pieces of meat from their butcher husbands learned how to transform tail, intestines and tripe into delicious meals that are still a staple of cucina romana, or traditional Roman food, today.
1. Coda alla vaccinara
This dish is made from cow tail stewed for hours in a savory tomato sauce. By the time it’s finished cooking the meat is so tender it falls from the bone, having absorbed all the tasty flavors from its sauce. Coda can be found in many restaurants in Testaccio, including Flavio al Velavevodetto.
After years of falling off the menus in Rome because of health restrictions imposed by the EU after Mad Cow Disease, pajata is back. But what is it exactly? The simple answer is that it is made from the intestines of veal that have not been weaned from their mother, so that their bellies are full of mother’s milk, which becomes creamy and cheesy when cooked. It can be eaten either grilled, pajata arrosto, or cooked with tomatoes and served as a sauce with rigatoni pasta.
This is another dish that consists of an animal’s inside parts, and coratella specifically is the insides of small animals like rabbit and lamb. Coratella is most often seen in restaurants around spring and Easter when it is traditionally made with artichokes and is called coratella con carciofi.
Tripe inspires strong feelings: either you love it or you hate it. It has a particular texture that not everyone is fond of: soft, almost spongy, and a tad bit fatty. In Rome, tripe is eaten after it has been cooked in tomato sauce. Florence is another city that is fond of tripe, where it’s called lampredotto and is cooked in a white sauce and served as a hot sandwich.
5. Strange salami
Cured pork is another weird food area in Italy, using many parts of the pig. One of the strangest is coppa di testa, also known as soppressata, which in English is called “headcheese”. Made with parts of the head, this salami often looks marbled and can be served as a tagliere, or a mixed meat and cheese plate. Another strange salami is lardo di colonnata, or cured lard, that is most often served thinly sliced on warm bread with olive oil in Tuscany.
If you lean toward veggies instead of meat, don’t worry! There are some strange vegetables served in Italy that are difficult to find anywhere else. One of my favorites is agretti found in the spring, which looks like a thick grass and tastes wonderful slightly boiled and then mixed with some lemon juice and olive oil. Another vegetable that can be found year round is cicoria, or dandelion leaves. Cicoria grows plentifully in many countries as a weed, but leave it up to the innovative Italians to turn it into a tasty side dish. And leave it to the Italians to discover a tasty way of eating flowers, too: fiori di zucca are delicious zucchini flowers stuffed with an anchovy and mozzarella cheese, then fried.