Updated: Jun 1
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..).