So often overlooked, Mantua is something of a surprise, both as a city and as a food destination. The city itself is little more than a large and somewhat quiet town, despite the size of the area that is classed as Mantua. But set almost on an island surrounded by lakes, a spectacular vista is laid out before you as you approach the city over the bridge leading to the Ducal Palace.
The city may have a beautiful setting, a stunning library and theatre, a captivatingly ornate palace, centuries old churches and be home to the Palazzo del Te with its renaissance masterpiece, the Room of Giants, but the great surprise, and arguably for me the jewel of Mantua, is the food. Its strong regional character is often clear and, unlike Turin, it is not characterised by offal, but rather other humble and earthy ingredients. Through dinner at Carlo Govi, Taverna Cinquecento and Osteria Delle Cinque Lire, I was able to sample a number of the typical local dishes and ingredients.
It was dinner the first night at Carlo Govi that revealed what a treat I was in for, and at very reasonable prices. Mentioned, unbeknownst to me before my arrival, in the 2015 Michelin guide, and for good reason, this restaurant focuses on its modern and clean take on Italian and local dishes. While the main of rabbit was over-salted and the pea flan served with it flavourless, the quality of the ingredients was clear. The lake-caught pike served on grilled polenta as part of the antipasti, and the pasta, were particularly fine. This quality carried all the way through to the olive oil served with the bread. It was an extra virgin from Garda Bresciano, on the shores of Lake Garda (my destination after Mantua, where I return each September) – so crisp, clean and bitter that you could taste the just ripe green olives it came from. It was one of the best oils I have ever tasted.
Pumpkin and almonds are particularly prevalent in the cooking, pumpkin tortelli and ravioli in particular. At Carlo Govi the two were bought together in tortelli filled with pureed pumpkin that seemed to have been mixed with amaretto.
Traditionally almonds are used in regional cakes such as the sbrisolona, on sale throughout Mantua and often enjoyed with a glass of prosecco. In reality it is more of a large biscuit about a centimetre thick, and with the look and taste of a Crunchy Nut Cluster. It is an old creation, pre-1600 given its use in one dessert I ate based on a recipe dating from that time. This dessert, Pappa di sbrisolona del Duca di Mantova, was simply broken pieces of sbrisolona layered with an alcoholic cream.
Cakes are commonly enjoyed in Mantua, as in other regions of Italy, including at breakfast. One that the owner of the hotel I stayed at prepared for me as a gift when I left, was a chocolate and lemon tart. This simple tart was made of thick crumbly chocolate pastry, filled with a bitter lemon and lemon zest jelly-cum-curd. Another offering from the owner of the hotel was mustard apples, known locally as Mostarda di Mantova. I must admit that these weren’t a favourite of mine, given their sulphurous taste after being stewed in sugar and mustard for twenty-four hours. Interestingly it’s served with cheese and cold meats like bresaola.
However, the most “out there” ingredient which I came across was donkey meat. This was served as a donkey and wild mushroom ragu on pasta, but I have to say it was nothing special. It tasted of beef and, had I not known it was meant to be donkey, I’d have said I was eating minced beef, wild mushrooms and pasta. The other meat specialty that I was able to partake of was a La Svarzella. This was an on the bone pork schnitzel on steroids, topped off with a mountain of chips. To give an idea of scale, the pork was at least an inch thick in a heavy breadcrumb coating and weighed at least a kilogram off the bone. When a litre water bottle was laid on it for scale it was dwarfed in both length and width. I have never been so defeated by a plate of food. From the moment it was placed in front of me I was at a loss. It was so large it would not have been out of place at a restaurant holding an eating competition where you got the meal free and a picture on the wall for finishing it. Needless to say, by the time I had had my fill there was hardly a dent in it.
The one thing that can be said for La Svarzella is that it reflects perfectly, if to the extreme, the characteristic of northern and Lombardi cuisine. That is to say, it tends to be heavier than central or southern Italian cooking, containing less tomato, olive oil and Mediterranean ingredients. Clearly this comes from its proximity to Central Europe, and Austria in particular, to which the region has strong links historically, dating back to the Holy Roman Empire and before. The rulers of the region paid homage to the Emperor often as a way to secure independence from the Pope and the Kings of France who also sought to rule the region. In the case of Mantua, it was Charles V who made the Gonzagas Dukes of Mantua.
Though Mantua does have one Michelin stared restaurant, Aquila Nigra, the other restaurants were more interesting. Aquila Nigra’s problem, like that of many starred restaurants in Italy, is that what it offers, while very good, is traditionally Italian and safe. When I dined there my meat, unfortunately, was somewhat dry, as the Italians like to overcook their meat for my taste. That said, the cherry sauce with the breast of guinea fowl was the most luscious I’ve ever had, and the fennel seeds rubbed into the grilled quail were a great touch.
For me, though Mantua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it doesn’t have the same romance to it that has made fall for Italy over the years. But it’s certainly worth considering spending a couple of nights there, if for no other reason than to try the food.