FLORENCE At walking distance from the tourist cafeterias around Palazzo Vecchio, Donella and her husband Frank are busy bartering wine and potatoes for a meal of Tuscan "pici" pasta with pork sauce.
The neighborly couple have recently launched a 40-seat restaurant in Florence that allows customers to exchange vegetables and used goods for a traditional Tuscan dinner, in a way to encourage people to dine out despite the recession.
"We decided to open a restaurant, a gathering place for those who like to go out despite the crisis," said co-owner Donella Faggioli, who sports a blonde mohawk hairdo and tattoos.
"Many cannot afford to go out to dinner in the evening and don't have enough money to last to the end of the month. So we decided to go back to the old barter system," she told Reuters.
Named "L'e' Maiala" after a Tuscan saying for "hard times" which derives from the word for tough female pork meat, the trattoria revives a tradition that the owners remember hearing about from their grandparents when barter was a common currency in Florence at the end of World War Two.
"This restaurant is dedicated to our grandparents. The type of cooking is dedicated to the memory of our grandparents who would be at home on Sundays and would cook these same flavours, the same simple but very tasty dishes," fellow owner Leandro Bisenzi told Reuters TV.
CRISIS EATS IN
Bartering has been around for centuries as an alternative to money, but a prolonged recession may have increased its prevalence as cash-strapped firms trade services through intermediaries to cut costs and reach out to new clients.
In 2011, over 400,000 companies worldwide earned an estimated $12 billion in bartered assets, according to the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA), a U.S. non-profit organization which promotes the oldest form of trade.
Bartering trade is expected to grow by between 5 percent and 10 percent annually, IRTA says. This does not include untracked deals such as between a plumber and a restaurateur, for example.
In Italy, bartering is less common than in the U.S. but is spreading as the recession eats into bank deposits.
"Firms are not only selling less, but also facing a liquidity crisis so they cannot buy," said Simone Barbone, marketing head at BexB, Italy's leading bartering intermediary.
BexB allows its 2,600 members to trade activities such as repair works and refurnishing through an online network. Members also use a complementary currency called Bexb to buy and sell.
Founded in 2001, Bexb takes inspiration from WIR Bank, a Swiss cooperative bank founded in 1934 during the Great Depression. Since its launch, BexB has mediated transactions for over 200 million euros, a third of which in 2011.
"Numbers are growing as more companies join the network during the crisis," Barbone said.
Restaurants, which deal directly with consumers, are not part of the business-to-business trade.
But in the U.S., several restaurants are bartering meals to fill seats on slow days. Some choose to swap goods they need.
At the trattoria, the owners prefer to swap meals for food.
"Wine, vegetables, potatoes are something we can use," Faggioli said, carrying a pineapple offered by a customer.
A pensioner with a fruit garden has become a regular client.
"We are eating here in exchange for these two bottles of wine. It's a great idea for Florence and for everywhere else - above all in this period of crisis," customer Rosella Testa said.
A couple who brought a bottle of Barbera wine and a walnut liqueur got a discount of 20 euros on their 48-euro bill after a dinner with pici, tripe, chickpeas and dessert.
"Prices are fair and portions are big," co-owner Francesco "Frank" Francini said, arranging tables for a group.
But customers be warned - Tuscans are canny traders and not every transaction is successfully served up.
A jacket with a price tag of 400,000 liras (about 200 euros) was refused because it was considered unwearable and a group from northern Italy which called to offer a coffin may not get a better deal.
(Reporting by Antonella Ciancio, editing by Paul Casciato)