Tripe was once a common part of the Italian diet, and no where more so than Rome. The inhabitants of the Eternal City are famous for their love of offal, which they jocularly call the quinto quarto, or the ‘fifth fourth’, a butcher’s term for those humble parts of the animal that the nobility and clergy left for the common folk. Saturday was the traditional day in Rome and elsewhere in Italy to eat tripe—sabato trippa, the expression went—but the custom is, like so many old customs, fading fast. Indeed, organ meats in general are falling ever more out of favor, as elsewhere in the world.
It’s a sad story, if you ask me, but there’s a silver lining for those of us who still love the quinto quarto: unlike other humble cuts that have become fashionable like short ribs or oxtail, under-appreciated tripe is still very economical. And trippa alla romana, or Roman-Style tripe, is one of the most flavorful ways of enjoying trip that I know of. Here’s a somewhat updated version of that Roman classic.
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) tripe, pre-cooked and cut into strips (see Notes)
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) pancetta, cut into cubes
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 dried red hot pepper (peperoncino) or a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
- White wine
- Salt and pepper
- 250-300g (1/2-2/3 lb) canned tomatoes, sieved, or passata di pomodoro
- Olive oil (or lard)
To finish the dish:
- A handful of mentuccia (Roman mint)—or other mint
- Freshly grated pecorino romano cheese, q.b.
Start by sautéing the pancetta in olive oil (or lard) in a large pot, together with the peperoncino if using. (The traditional vessel for cooking tripe is a large terracotta pot, and using one does seem to give you extra depth of flavor.) Add onion, carrot and celery, and continue sautéing, seasoning with salt and pepper, until the vegetables are nice and soft. (Adding a tablespoon of water from time to time ensures that this soffritto will not brown.)
Add your pre-cooked tripe (see below), cut into bite-sized strips (along with a pinch of red pepper flakes if using those). Mix it all well, and allow to simmer so that the tripe begins to insaporire, or absorb the flavors of the soffritto.
Add a splash of white wine, and when it has evaporated, add crushed tomatoes. The more you add, the more saucy the dish will be. (Any excess sauce is absolutely wonderful over pasta!) Cover and simmer, stirring from time to time to avoid scorching, until the tripe is tender but still ever so slightly chewy and the sauce well reduced, about 30-45 minutes.
About 5 minutes before you are ready to serve the tripe, add a handful of mint. Serve hot, topped with a generous grating of pecorino cheese.
Notes on Trippa alla romana
The original recipe for trippa alla romana calls for simmering pre-cooked tripe in some sugo di carne for about a half hour. That was a recipe for when long-simmered meat sauces were also a part of weekly life. You made your meat sauce on Saturday, in advance of Sunday dinner, so it was easy enough to make some extra for simmering your tripe. This recipe allows you to make trippa alla romana as a stand-alone dish. The soffritto and pancetta make a savory base for your tomato sauce with a taste that mimics a traditional meat sauce but takes far less time. The finishing steps adding mint and pecorino are just the same either way. A local Roman mint called mentuccia gives the most authentic flavor, of course, but regular mint will do fine. And when I made this batch, I added that rather spicy Thai basil—iconoclastic but delicious.
You won’t find hot pepper in many recipes for trippa alla romana. Most, in fact, omit it but in our house we like the savoriness that it adds. Just don’t add so much that the dish actually becomes spicy, which isn’t characteristic of the dish. You need to handle a whole hot dried pepper differently from red pepper flakes, as indicated above. You add the whole pepper along with the pancetta at the beginning to brown. If you did that with the flakes, they’d burn and turn bitter; add them rather after you’re made your soffritto, along with the tripe.
In Italy, you can find tripe that has been almost entirely pre-cooked, so that you need only simmer it with the tomato sauce for, say, 30-45 minutes and it’s ready to eat. Here in the US, tripe can be hard to find. You can sometimes find tripe in Italian neighborhoods; Asian and Latino markets usually carry it as well. Tripe does usually come partially pre-cooked, but still needs considerable further cooking before you can use it for this dish. Pre-cooking also removes some of the ‘gamy’ flavor that tripe can sometimes have. Simmer the whole tripe in water to cover with an onion, garlic and a spring of parsley (you can add carrot and celery, too, if you like) for about an hour. Or more: some tripe you buy can take as long as 3 hours to cook, so ask your butcher or store assistant about it.
As a traditional weekly feature of the Italian diet, there are a lot of traditional regional recipes for making tripe. In Milan, for example, where they call it buseca in local dialect, tripe are made with white beans called fagioli di Spagna and sage. In Sicily, tripe is combined with peas and in Piemonte with potatoes and leeks. And so on. And by the way, as a variation, you can add cannellini beans to your trippa alla romana. It’s a great combination, too.