What do you think of when asked to describe traditional Italian food? Spaghetti, meatballs, and garlic bread? Sure, that is Italian-American cuisine, but not traditional Italian food. In fact, the bread in Northern Italy is baked without salt; a startlingly different experience from the salty, buttery garlic bread us Americans consider to be Italian cuisine. My eyes were opened to the actual meaning traditional Italian food when dining with a Florentine native at the Sant'Ambrogio market in Florence, Italy this past summer.

"Don't ask what it's made of until you try it!" Francesca, a Florentine native, encouraged me and my friend Sofie, as we as sat across from her and two other Florence residents at a large wooden table inside  Da Rocco Trattoria at  Mercado di Sant'Ambrogio. We had mutual friends with Francesca, but at this point, we had known our new friends for all but twenty minutes. Below is a photo that will help paint the picture of the lively, bustling eatery that functioned amidst many Florentine meat and cheese vendors inside the market. Our waiter recognized Francesco, left, from his frequent visits to the eatery throughout his childhood.

Avery Centrella

Our new group of friends were very excited to order us traditional Florentine dishes. Clockwise, Ribollita; white bean soup, Papa al Pomodoro; tomato based bread soup, Lampredotto; sheep intestine with a basil based sauce, and Panzanella; bread salad. Not pictured is a plate of corned cow tongue.

Avery Centrella

My roommate and began our tasting by poking our forks into a pile of chewy, brown meat, and dipping it tentatively in a pool of fresh pesto-esque sauce. A waft of basil cuts the smell of the other  antipasto dishes. I took a bite, and the tender and rubbery meat tasted oddly similar to chicken. The pesto added an earthy  taste to the  meat.

"Okay, it's delicious, what is it?" I asked, at a loss for what it could have been. I am told to wait as they all laugh, and offered us another dish. The following plate was dotted with glistening brown cubes of meat. My roommate Sofie says, "people love these foods for a reason, try it!" The meat proved chewier than the first, and did not have much of a taste. "Sheep intestine, Lampredotto, and cow tongue, Lesso." Francesca points to the dishes we had just plucked a bite from.

Although sheep intestine and cow tongue cannot be deemed as what the foreigner thinks of when considering Traditional Italian cuisine, these dishes are revered as a staple of Florentine diets. Francesca explained the origin of the food as we ate, "This is poor food. Florentines use every part of the animal. They make poetry out of food." Historically, the early Florentines used every part livestock in order to maximize their ingredients. The waste-not food habits of original Florentine people now have a place in current residents' diets.

The Dish I'll Never Forget

My personal favorite dish was a tepid tomato-bread soup drizzled with olive oil called  'papa al pomodoro'. I lifted a heaping spoonful of lumpy tomato stew and smelled a hearty, tangy tomato fragrance. The soup is comparable to a thick marinara, as it is cooked with stale Tuscan bread for a thick texture, immediately caused my eyes to water with enjoyment. The savory taste was incomparable to anything I had ever tasted. The other Italians at the table began to excitedly take photos of my happy tears and call over the waiter again to celebrate my reaction to their food. From dinners that lasted for hours, to the celebration of a foreigner loving their food, the Italian people revere their cuisine. 

The eye-opening experience of testing traditional Florence dishes while seated with locals is incomparable to simply wandering into any Italian venue and ordering a dish I am comfortable with. No longer could I order a lasagna I have had a million times, or a Caesar salad. Trying dishes such as 'bread salad' and sheep intestine helped us appreciate the history and resourcefulness of Florentine life, and provided for some friendly company. The next time you have the opportunity to experience another culture's cuisine, venture out of your comfort zone, and be open to suggestions.