Italy’s ‘swap meat’

In a tough economy, one Italian restaurant lets customers barter for their meals

Michelle Tarnopolsky

At the Vatican this month, a restaurant owner scaled St. Peter’s marble-clad dome and refused to come down to protest the austerity measures driving Italians to new heights of desperation. The stunt made headlines around the world. The owners of another restaurant, L’è Maiala in Florence, have found their own unique, if not quite so ostentatious, way to grapple with the dire state of the economy: they’re turning to an archaic form of payment, the barter system, as a way for cash-strapped diners to pay for their meals.

“People keep calling to see if it’s real,” says manager Donella Faggioli. “They think it’s just a publicity stunt.” It’s real all right. Customers of the traditional Tuscan trattoria, which opened just north of downtown Florence on Sept. 21, can pay for all or part of their meal with five kilos of tomatoes from their garden, say, or the postwar end-table they inherited from nonna.

The eatery’s name means “it’s a female pig”—Florentine slang for “it’s tough,” an expression growing in popularity during the financial crisis. At L’è Maiala, prospective trades are agreed upon when making reservations. Establishing the value of the food and wine on offer is easy—the staff is already familiar with fair market prices. “At any rate, it is bartering; it’s an offer, a request,” says Faggioli. “The client can always say, ‘No, I’m not giving this to you for that price.’ Just like I can say, ‘No, I can’t accept that,’ for whatever reason.”

So far, most diners have offered bottled foodstuffs like wine, olive oil and preserves in exchange for their tripe, ribollita and, of course, pork prepared in a variety of ways. The name of the 40-seat restaurant has also prompted patrons to contribute to the swine-inspired décor. “I love that one guy decided to paint a pig on a vase and bring it to us,” says Faggioli. “People are having fun. It’s interesting, different.” And a welcome option for Florentine foodies who are being forced to be frugal.

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