Of eating calf intestines, ox tails, sea snails, and sheep’s head stew—plus some edibles I was never able to determine what they were
I grew up a fussy eater—I’m not kidding; I used to pick the seeds off my strawberries—but I more than make up for it these days.
While I’m still partial to comfort food at home, on the road I’ll try anything. No foreign food is too disgusting, obscure, or of questionable provenance. If it’s unidentifiable and fried AND comes on a stick, I’ll probably order three.
A litany of unfortunate menu items
I’ve enjoyed pasta with raw sea urchin, veal cutlets with brain fritters, and indigestion with prairie oysters (a.k.a. Rocky Mountain oysters, a.k.a what ranchers cook when all they have is frying oil and the, er, leftovers from castrating steers). I once ate a whole frog: fried, chilled, and soaked in vinegar—though in my defense, I didn’t realize that’s what I was ordering at the time.
On our first night in Hong Kong, I watched my girlfriend eat her sensible scallops while I pretended to enjoy a soup of snake, abalone, and bamboo fungus thickened with—and I’m only guessing here—buffalo mucous. I debated whether the stringy snake meat or thready fungus was more disgusting, until I learned that “abalone” is a fancy (and expensive) word for “sea snail.”
The “fifth fourth”
I’ve had entire three-course dinners that turned the stomachs of my dining companions, like that night at Checchino dal 1887 (www.checchino-dal-1887.com). The restaurant’s across the street from Rome’s former slaughterhouse—where a part of workers pay was the useless quinto quarto (“fifth fourth”) of the day’s butchering—and has more than a century’s experience at transforming these leftovers into edible dishes.
My meal started with a nervetti salad of boiled veal tendons, followed by delectable rigatoni with pajata—suckling calf intestines (since mad cow they’ve switched to lamb) with their mother’s milk still clotted inside, cut into sections disturbingly shaped just like the rigatoni. The main course: Checchino’s patented coda all vaccinara (ox-tail stew).
Good thing the restaurant also had Rome’s best wine cellar. My nerves needed ample fortification to try it all.
Beware the phrase: “It’s a local delicacy”
My true weakness is anything added to the bottom of a menu by hand. These daily dishes may be innocuous enough—catch of the day, or perhaps the chef found some lovely zucchini flowers at market and has stuffed them with cheese. However, often a dish scrawled in pen is the sign of a local specialty.
Once, in a restaurant in Delphi, Greece, I asked about the penned-in dishes. The waiter nervously described one as, “Lamb on the fire with spices and, uhm, thingies.” I asked what kind of thingies, and he demurred.
“You don’t want it, sir,” he said anxiously. “It is a…local dish. You have to be born on this mountainside to love it.” Then he leaned forward and whispered, “I was no born here. I haaate it!”
Of course, I ordered it. The lamb was tender, the spices spicy, the “thingies” crunchy. I didn’t ask.
The tale of the sheep’s skull stew
One of my most memorable “local dishes” came from an osteria at the edge of Florence. When I asked about the “testicciola” penciled on the menu, the waiter/owner explained it was a mutton stew served in a sheep’s head.
I nearly fell off my seat in excitement.
Sure enough, the stew arrived in half a steamed-clean skull. I was slurping away merrily, chewing sinewy chunks of mutton and trying not to notice the bits that were clearly not meat, when I suddenly found myself with something large, soft, and spherical in my mouth.
Now, I don’t know much about sheep anatomy, but I do know there are only a few perfectly spherical parts of any animal’s body, and I’m too keen on eating any of them.
In a panic, my brain reverted to English, thought about the name of the dish, and decided now would be a great time to spit out the sphere.
That’s when the owner materialized in front of me, beaming, to ask how I was enjoying my dinner.
What else could I do?
I bit down. Hard.
The sphere went “Pop!” and deflated. I swallowed the thick liquid oozing out of the rubbery casing and responded, a bit shakily, “Very good! Er, what’s in it, exactly?”
He proudly listed the ingredients, some of them acceptable, some of them quite nasty. None of them was “testicles,” but he finished his litany with the words “…and one sheep’s eyeball.”
Somehow, I was relieved.
Travel is an adventure; foreign dining doubly so. Sampling local food is as important as touring the monuments and museums. Many waiters, concerned that foreigners’ palates might reject some of the more interesting local dishes, may steer you clear from those dishes penciled on the menu.
Perhaps this is a service you’re only too happy to let them perform. But take it from me: sheep’s eyeballs ain’t all that bad. Bon Appetit!