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I’m just back from 10 days in Rome. Much about the trip was lovely, some was stressful, but from the gastronomic viewpoint it was a pure delight. Tom and I ate wonderfully well at old favorite restaurants and a few new ones, mostly choosing traditional Roman specialties. I already long to taste those dishes again!

Our last dinner on the trip was at La Matricianella, an almost aggressively traditional Roman restaurant in the city’s historic center, which we’ve patronized with pleasure for more than a decade. This time, after a carciofo alla giudia (deep-fried artichoke) for me and two fiori fritti (batter-fried cheese-stuffed squash flowers) for Tom, we both ordered trippa alla romana: tripe Roman-style.

Here is a poor photo of my dish – the room’s lighting confounded my simple camera – but take my word, it was ambrosia. We thought it was the best trippa all romana we’d ever had.
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As soon as we began planning meals at home, I knew I wanted to try recreating that dish. I’d never made tripe in that style before, but there are recipes for it in every Roman cookbook. The main problem is, we can’t get the right kind of tripe here in the USA. We have only honeycomb – one of the four kinds of beef tripe used in the dish in Italy. All are just different enough in flavor and texture to make the true dish inimitable. Still, I’d do my best.

I picked up a pound of tripe from the butcher, and Tom cut it for me in bite-size chunks.

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For the cooking, I adapted steps from several cookbook recipes. First, I boiled the tripe in plain salted water until it was tender. That took all of three hours. Fortunately, I’d expected as much and had started very early. When the tripe was ready, I sauteed a mince of carrot, celery, and onion in olive oil for five minutes.
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I added the drained tripe, stirred it around in the pan, and poured on a quarter cup of red wine – which the tripe just sucked up immediately.
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Next came a cup of my own tomato sauce, preserved from the summer’s San Marzano tomatoes, salt, black pepper, and a pinch of ground clove. All that simmered, covered, for half an hour, to blend the flavors, and the dish was done.
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The pan sat at the back of the stove until I reheated it at dinner time. I served the tripe topped with freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese. (The cheese should have been mixed with chopped mentuccia, the special Roman mint, but I have only ordinary domestic mint, a flavor so different, I didn’t want to chance it.)
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So: This was a perfectly good plate of food. Tripe tender and flavorful, sauce very tasty too. Unquestionably pleasing for innard lovers. But overall, it didn’t rise to the character of true trippa alla Romana. It was a bit monotone from the single variety of tripe, and it lacked zing, somehow. Probably I should have added a peperoncino, that tiny dried red pepper that perks up so many Italian tomato sauces. But we still wouldn’t have had the Ur-Roman ambiance of La Matricianella.
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Image from matricianella.it

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Sigh. When will we ever get back to Rome again?

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In 1968, M.F.K. Fisher said “The trouble with tripe is that in my present dwelling place, a small town in Northern California, I could count on one hand the people who would eat it with me.” Regrettably, I, whose present dwelling place is a huge city in the Northeast, can say the same in 2012.

But Tom and I love tripe. So when I made my newest cookbook purchase, Jennifer McLagan’s Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, the first section I turned to was the one on tripe. And smiled to see that quotation from Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork. McLagan realizes the difficulty of persuading people to eat tripe, which must be why she dubbed this recipe Beginner’s Tripe. It has so many other tasty things in it, she hopes to distract the faint-hearted from thinking about the principal ingredient.

I well know the difficulty of that. To me, tripe’s public relations problem is that it’s not one of those exotic-sounding but mild meats like rattlesnake or alligator, of which you can tell people, “Oh, don’t worry; it really tastes just like chicken.” Tripe doesn’t taste like chicken. Tripe tastes like nothing but itself. It’s animaly. It’s pungent. It’s spongy. It’s Dionysian, not Apollonian. But those of us who like it, like it for just those reasons. Sorry, faint hearts! But – truth be told – this recipe does go a long way toward disguising those characteristics.The recipe is for a sort of stew, which starts with a thick sauce base of olive oil, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, lemon zest, chile flakes, and tomatoes. Nothing to fear there, and plenty of concealment for the tripe!

The tripe, cut into tiny strips (thanks, Tom), goes into that sauce along with some meat broth, and cooks lengthily on top of the stove until it’s tender. McLagan says to blanch it first, but tripe is sold so cleanly pre-cooked these days that I rarely bother to do that, and I didn’t this time. No problem.

Now here comes the interesting part, which is the major tripe-distracting ingredient in the recipe: chickpeas. Cooked or canned chickpeas (I used good canned ones) are drained, rinsed, dried well, and sautéed in olive oil until browned. To them are added sliced chorizo and diced red bell pepper, all of which is further sautéed until the chickpeas are crunchy, the chorizo rendered, and the pepper softened.

Once all those things are added to the tripe and sauce, heated together briefly, put in a serving dish and topped with parsley, the chickpeas take on the lead role and the terrifying tripe becomes almost undetectable to both the eye and (alas!) the palate in the busy, colorful mixture.

This is a really good dish, flavorful and lively. It wants some crusty peasant bread to sop up the sauce with, possibly a green salad alongside, and a red wine strong enough to stand up to the spicy density of the dish. It might indeed convert a tripe-timid person – though for true aficionados, there isn’t enough tripe in it. Tom wants me to double the proportion of tripe, next time we make it.

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