Updated: Jun 1, 2021
I want to tell you about sitting down to a plate of donkey with locals in Mantova last night. You read that right, donkey.
It was my last night in Mantova, a town known for its majestic governmental palaces from the Renaissance, and I wanted to take myself out for a glass of wine to soak in the local aperitivo culture. I chose a bar that was intimate and lively, with well-dressed people standing in small groups around the bar and flowing to the tables outside (despite the cold AND despite empty tables inside- a phenomenon in Italy I’ll never quite understand).
I sat at the bar, ordered a glass of white wine, and smiled at how wonderful the “tapas style” service was (my drink came with bar snacks and bruschetta). Soon after I finished, a group standing behind me began chatting with me. They asked where I was from and if I was alone and quickly invited me to be in their company that night. We ordered another round and I was introduced to the group, two women in their late twenties/early thirties and two men in their early 50s. Marco, Rojas, Marika, and Eneda. One of the women used to work as a barista where the guys were regulars and they had become good friends over time. Marco mentioned they were heading to a restaurant afterwards and I noticed everyone was drinking faster than usual. I sipped mine slowly since I’d probably just be hanging out at the bar a bit longer then going home for a good night’s rest before my trip to Bologna the next day. Yet, they started acting like they were waiting for me to finish and I had to clarify, “Oh, you want me to come with you to dinner?” It felt awkward, like I was inviting myself to crash their dinner. But their reaction was more like “Well of course! Only if you want to.”
Now, it might sound strange to you that I would just up and go with this group of strangers, but in the context of Italian culture, it’s really no big deal. (And I should mention here that I employ many personal safety strategies no matter how nice the people seem. If you're traveling solo, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The ULTIMATE Guide for the Solo Woman in Italy where I've written all my tips for staying safe and experiencing Italy like a local!) We arrived at a restaurant with an extravagant entrance already decorated for Christmas (it was October), with faux fur draped over the walls to create a sort of wooded Renaissance village atmosphere. They warned me that this restaurant has enormous portions and, with a serious edge, we discussed what we would order from the paper menu that had been printed specifically for that evening.
Eneda, the former barista, selected a red wine for the table and we ate. First, a plate of regional gorgonzola cheese decorated with cherry tomatoes, lettuce, grapes, and walnuts. Then, a bruschetta topped with alice, or anchovies. The men shared a tagliatta di maiale, a thick slice of grilled pork with potatoes. Eneda ordered the northern Italian equivalent of schnitzel. And Marika and I each had our own plate of, you guessed it, donkey. To be more specific it’s stracotto d’asino, a local Mantovese specialty that features perfect, al dente pasta with hearty chunks of slow-cooked donkey.
Now, I’ve gotten to where I’m ok trying things when I travel if it’s a local specialty, but as a rule, I don’t eat red meat. The funny thing is, when Rojas was taking charge and organizing everyone’s order I’d told him that I don’t eat red meat. I’ve found most Europeans just don’t quite grasp the concept of what “red meat” means and also think that eating just seafood makes me a vegetarian. So of course, he assured me that donkey wasn’t really red meat. "Sort of, but not really." I rolled with it. The plate arrived and I have to say, it was delicious. I was a little uncomfortable with how comfortable I was with eating donkey :(, but when in Mantova… (However, fast forward to 4 am and I’m sitting up in bed waiting for my stomach ache to subside..).
As we ate and really the whole evening, Rojas kept making quips at Eneda about how they used to be in love and that her two-year old daughter Ava was really his, etc. She’d roll her eyes and sigh then assure me that “Non è vero, non ascolta di niente che lui dice.” (It’s not true, don’t listen to anything he says.) He was joking of course, but it was so fantastically Italian, even if questionable behavior. Marco brought up a picture on his phone of Rojas when he used to have long curly hair and we secretly snickered until he noticed. Forks flew to neighboring plates. Rojas spoke to his friend at a table across the room as if they were next to each other and tried to sing in English. Marco showed me a photo of his daughter who is a model. The lights turned off to deliver a special birthday dessert at a nearby table and we all sang “Tanti Auguri”. They helped me find a solution to get to Bologna the next day as there would be train strikes. The girls invited me to have coffee with them in the morning. And then we had dessert- sorbetto and a modern version of the traditional millefoglie.
We started the dinner around 9pm and finished around midnight (and I really wouldn’t consider this a rather “long” Italian meal, just average). By the end, I was exhausted and my Italian skills were exhausted. But I was so, so happy. I’d walked into this bar feeling slightly awkward and uncomfortable and ended the night with 4 new Italian friends and a beautiful memory.