Dog lovers take note of the slightest mention of man’s best friend. So not surprisingly, a number of people have asked me about the dogs I briefly referred to in my book. To set the scene, my dear friends Luisa and Franco had three dogs that they walked in the beautiful park along Via Marina in the center of downtown Reggio Calabria. The area is a very pleasant place to stroll. The shady park is lined on one side by stately mansions and the other opens up to the spectacular panorama of the Strait of Messina and Sicily beyond.
NON-ITALIAN, ITALIAN DOGS
The dogs already had some age on them when I arrived, although they were much spunkier than their years. Little Foxy, the plucky, red-haired matriarch ruled the roost, so to speak, and was partial to Luisa. For many years, she was the unofficial mascot of the Anglo-Italian Club of Reggio Calabria, dutifully accompanying her owner and the group’s longtime president to meetings. I’m not sure how much English she picked up, though, as she only responded to Italian commands. Logically, Italian dogs speak, or at least understand, Italian. At times I wondered if Foxy grasped more than she let on. It may have been due to her jealous streak, as she was fiercely protective of her owner.
Venerdì, on the other hand was the quintessential example of il miglior amico dell’uomo or man’s best friend. He was more Franco’s dog, and he took a shine to me from the moment I walked in the door. His enthusiasm almost knocked me off my feet on several occasions. He was a mixed breed German shepherd, who was found on a Friday, thus his name Venerdì.
All three of their dogs were foundlings. The third and youngest had the saddest abandonment story. Britty had most likely been used as a hunting dog. Short for Brittany, the breed excels in this field, and in Britty’s case, his near deafness was probably the result of being subjected to too many gunshots at close range. Alas, he was forsaken after his usefulness had been exhausted, and my friends found him in a rural area outside of town. Unfortunately, he had been mauled by a pack of wild dogs and after a life-saving operation, he was left with only part of his stomach. His loyalty and goodwill were completely intact, however, but he was understandably cautious around other dogs.
You couldn’t help but feeling for the little guy, his beautifully innocent face and lovely coloring. As thin as he was due to his physical problems, he still cut an elegant figure on Via Marina. I think he noticed the appreciative eyes that fell his way as he proudly pranced along the boulevard. Of course, people always asked if he was eating enough. I reassured them he received more than adequate nourishment. He was one of the most active dogs I’ve ever seen, eating all the time, as he was limited to very small portions to accommodate his tiny stomach.
Little Britty had his ups and downs, though. He also had a problem with his throat, and the veterinarians didn’t give him a long life expectancy. However, he had an incredibly resilient spirit and by the time I met him, had already outlived the predictions by a number of years.
WHAT DO ITALIAN DOGS EAT?
One morning when I was living in Reggio Luisa rang me from out of town. Britty was in a bad way and Franco was beside himself. Could I go over and help out?
I rushed right over and was confronted with Britty’s thin body lying listlessly on his favorite carpet. A “plaid” as Italians refer to a small blanket with a tartan pattern, surrounded him for a bit of extra warmth. Franco was, in fact, overwhelmed by the situation. He also had two other dogs to walk, so I stayed with Britty for a couple of hours before Luisa returned home. I rested my hand on his head and talked to him quietly, reassuringly.
Just after Luisa arrived and was in the process of preparing a quick lunch, Franco asked me to call her in, convinced Britty’s final moments were at hand. Although it didn’t look promising, I felt his breathing hadn’t deteriorated any further, but thought I should bring Franco something to eat.
We returned with a plate of artichoke ravioli, simply dressed with olive oil and parmigiano cheese – a dish that only required a few minutes boiling. Franco didn’t want to eat, but Luisa brought the plate in anyway.
And in that instance as she carried the hot pasta across the room, Britty seemed to make an ever-so-slight movement. Did his snout just twitch? We then could not believe as we watched him raise his head enough to point it in the direction of the aroma.
It was Giovanni Rana’s ravioli di carciofi (artichoke ravioli). Who knew that this dog had an affinity for vegetables? Perhaps it was his time spent out in the fields. Interestingly, Venerdì loved crusty bread, which I suppose is natural that an Italian dog, whatever the breed, should take on the habits of his Italian master.
That was the first day Britty had shown his fondness for the artichoke. He actually managed to stagger to his feet and eat a couple of bites. He improved later on in the day and was back to himself about a week later.
All three dogs have since passed away, Foxy and Venerdì at very advanced ages for canines. As Franco always said to Venerdì, in particular, before leaving the house, “Fidele e fiducioso!” (faithful and confident).
I’ve since come across Rana’s ravioli in the US. I like to get the artichoke variety and remember how they saved little Britty that fateful day. I also sometimes muse on how the Mediterranean diet affects animals. How many Italian dogs have tasted ravioli compared with their American counterparts?
Read more about life in Calabria in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot.
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