L’è Maiala, a new osteria in Florence, Italy, received a huge amount of international press before its grand opening on Monday, September 24th, 2012.
Besides the name, (“What a pig!” Not exactly clean Florentine slang for, “What a tough situation!”), shock-value funny and too risqué to appear on the street sign (they’ll have to settle for L’è with a pig face), the restaurant is the first of its kind in the city, and one of few in the world, to operate on cash, credit, or barter.
From the Huffington Post to La Nazione, tales were told of a place where money wasn’t necessary; where foodstuff, handicrafts, and antiques were traded for menu items; and where fresh produce collected was instantly cooked up and served – all in the name of combating the economic crisis.
Sounds a little too good to be true, doesn’t it? We took our skeptical selves out to dinner to find out just what, exactly, was the reality in all that press.
But before we could sit down to a traditional Florentine meal, we had important business to take care of: the barter. Although bringing in something to trade isn’t required, there was no way we were going without playing the game.
We decided against our basket of Italian mom’s, garden-picked, Tuscan tomatoes after talking with L’è Maiala manager, Donella Faggioli. Food or beverages brought in to barter can only be legally served in the restaurant if they are sealed (think olive oil, bottles of wine, etc.) and/or certified. The latter means you’re a farmer/business owner licensed to sell your products, or that you have a receipt of purchase from one of the former, proving your items legitimate.
Even though she’ll still accept uncertified, unsealed delights, (she tries not to turn anything down), they won’t be appearing on diners’ plates but taken home for personal/staff use, instead (exactly why we didn’t bring our tomatoes – too good to wind up on anyone’s order but ours).
Lacking antiques, modern designer items, anything handmade, or traditional Tuscan, we turned to Donella’s other preferred bartering category: things for the restaurant. “It’s not very easy to give value to art, because if you bring a picture, maybe it’s the best picture for you but just a picture for me,” she explained. The funny, strange, or anything pig-related, however (remember what the restaurant’s name means?), are much easier to appropriately appreciate – if not by the staff, by the customers. Guests can also exchange what they bring in for what others have left behind.
Taking all this into account, we decided to try our luck with a set of pig face magnets. At just €3, they left little room for a disappointing, first-time trade. To avoid one of your own, talk your barter item(s) over with the restuarant. While Donella would like to accept everything, she also does’t want to become a second hand dealer; it’s best to give her a call before bringing in questionable or, on the other hand, extremely pricy items. The idea is to trade something for the price of a (group) dinner, not more. (Yes that’s right, if you bring in enough to exhange, you can eat your whole meal for free!) She speaks great English, so even you non Italian-speakers can haggle at full throttle.
Object of exchange in hand, we were on our way. L’è Maiala is an easy, 15-minute walk from Florence’s duomo, near Piazza Della Libertà. However, upon arriving in Via Agnolo Poliziano, make sure you’re not looking for the photoshopped restaurant facade floating around the internet; a psychedelic, pink exterior is a far cry from the actual entrance.
Luckily, we had made a reservation for our 20:30, Saturday night dinner. The restaurant’s only dining room has just 40 seats, and it’s rare that any are ever empty. “We’re working very hard to make it feel like home,” Donella pointed out. Seated alongside laughing Florentine couples and friends, close together, gestures flying between tables – we had already understood.
Browsing the traditional Tuscan menu by candlelight, we found several specialty dishes with maiale (pork) as the signature ingredient (again, the name of the restaurant) among vegetarian options and the more typical pappa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), pici (hand-rolled pasta), and Florentine trippa (cow stomach). Everything was average-priced, making dinner in two (with appetizer, dessert, and wine) possible for around €50.
Donella had touted the Lesso di Maiale: pork stew boiled for 6-8 hours, and recooked with onions and tomatoes. However, not being on the menu that night, we opted for the tagliere di norcino Chini (a mixed cured meat plate), filetto di maiale alla mele (apple pork filet); and trippa, instead. The specials at L’è Maiala change often, as daily and seasonal dishes usually depend on what’s available at the local market.
Our food arrived in big portions and full of hearty flavor. The Florentine chef, Maria Cristina Palanti, is a mother and thus, according to Donella “cooks like a real one.” We would have to agree, as nothing tasted exactly like regular restaurant fare – there was something homemade about it.
Just as we were beginning to wonder if we were the only ones who brought something to barter, the people at the table next to us pulled out a designer sweater and a jar of homegrown, crushed red pepper; and other guests arrived at the front bar with crates of wine and vegetables, kitchenware, and a set of glass vases.
Donella and the staff recorded each item, held them up to the light for evaluation, and patiently listened to their descriptions of worth before making an offer.
Most agreements were reached within a few minutes, and customers seemed happy with the exchange, boasting to one another, “They’re giving us an appetizer and a first course!” “We got a two!” “We got the whole meal!”
In fact, when it came time for us to barter, we also walked away quite satisfied. Our €3 pig magnets got us €5 of blackberry tart dessert, and we felt strangely proud when Donella immediately stuck them on the cash register for all to see. The trading game had won us over.
Curious to know more about where this idea came from, Donella responded that she had heard of similar exchange businesses operating in France and Germany, and excitedly described an entire street in Berlin where money is unnecessary. If the concept worked in other parts of Europe, she figured, “Let’s try. We can do it.”
L’è Maiala warrants a visit for the food and atmosphere alone, and athough all diners are welcome to pay in full, we wouldn’t recommend going without bringing something to trade.
Half the fun isn’t even about trying to get more for what you give, but just the experience in itself. So, put “pig” on your Italy trip packing list; Florence has brought back the barter.
Via Agnolo Poliziano, 7
Tel. 345 109 3498
Open: Lunch, 12-2:30/3; Dinner, 7:30 to 10/10:30
Closed: Monday dinner, Saturday lunch
What do you think of the barter concept at L’è Maiala? Just a good publicity stunt or around for the long term?