Mantova is one of the most lustrous jewels in Italy’s string of princely states., yet it has been spared the onslaught of mass tourism. When Romeo was banished to Mantova he declared “there is no world without Verona walls”, and visitors flocking to Italy are equally heedless of Friar Laurences’s advice “Sojourn in Mantova”. However a few days in this beautiful city, surrounded on three sides by the tranquil lakes made from the waters of the Mincio, satisfy most cultural and gastronomic yearnings.
The Gonzaga family ruled Mantova for nearly three centuries and they left behind a great artistic patrimony. They were great patrons of the arts and Mantegna, Titian, Rubens and Raphael were all lured to the city to enrich the palatial buildings. The Paslazzo Te and Palazzo Ducale have interesting frescoes and the Teatro Accademico, is a late baroque gem where Mozart performed in 1770 when he was ten years old.
Sabbioneta, 30 kms from Mantova, was built in the sixteenth century by the scholarly Vespasiano Gonzaga as a model of the ideal city. He showed great religious tolerance, ignoring the papal edicts against Jews. There is much to see and a very active Pro Loco gives local tourist information and organizes many interesting events.
The first Italian cookbook was written for the Gonzagas in 1421 by Bartolomeo Sacchi, and the tradition of good food is still strong. Three of Italy’s top ten restaurants are only a few kilometers from the city, and Mantova itself is full of gastronomic treats.
Although Mantova is in the region of Lombardia its culinary traditions seem to belong to the Veneto. There are great paddy fields to the east growing Vialone Nano rice, and risotto is the ideal dish to combat the cold fogs swirling round the Mincio in winter.
In Mantova you can eat risotto Venetian style, all’ onda, liquid and rippling like a wave , or the dryer alla pilota. named for the men who used to husk the rice, the piloti, who traditionally cooked for the other rice workers. The rice fields play host to frogs and snails and these appear in many guises, together with eels and freshwater shrimp.
The sweet and sour taste is very prevalent in Mantova, and the tortelli are filled with pumpkin, Parmesan and amaretti biscuits. Pigeon is cooked with grapes and capon with blackcurrants. The mostarda di frutta is usually made with just one fruit, apples or cherries, unlike the famous mixed fruit version from Cremona.
The Austrian influence is seen in the rich butter and almond cakes like torta sbrisolana, torta di tagliatelle and torta elevezia. In winter people feast on the sumptuous anello di Monaco.
Where to eat
Aquila Nigra – Via Bonacolsi 4 Tel: 0376 327180 Closed Sunday and Monday.
The restaurant is housed in the old stable block of the Palazzo Bonacolsi just off the Piazza Sordello. There is an interesting tasting menu and a mouth-watering selection of desserts.
Il Cigno trattoria dei Martini – Piazza D’Arco 1 Tel: 0376 327101 Closed Monday and Tuesday
This has always been one of my favourite restaurants. The building dates back to the fifteenth century and many of the dishes are new interpretations of Renaissance specialities. Tables by the window enjoy a view of the green perfumed courtyard.
Top restaurants outside Mantova
Dal Pescatore at Canneto sull’Oglio
L’Ambasciata at Quisitello
Al Bersagliere at Goito