Mantova, or Mantua in English, is a tiny medieval city in Lombardy, on the border with Veneto. Ruled for decades by the rich Gonzaga family, the city is a gem with a lot to offer a cultural traveler. I, however, was more of a gastronomical traveler.
The plan was to head to the city early Sunday morning and head back the same day for a simple day trip… and that’s about the extent of the plan. With very little knowledge about Mantova, the history, art or sights, once more awake we began googling the city during the drive over.
The city is considered one of the main artistic and cultural hubs in Northern Italy, noted for its architecture, landscape and role in the opera, according to Wikipedia. The centro storico, or historical city center, and Sabbioneta are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of Mantegna, a Renaissance painter perhaps most known for his Lamentation over the Dead Christ – famous for it’s all-too revealing view of the Christ and the shocking image of Christ as a corpse.
Visitors can tour the Gonzaga family’s Palazzo Te or Palazzo Ducale residences, the Duomo, the Rotonda di San Lorenzo or the Bibiena Theater, where Mozart once played a concert in 1770.
We attempted some of that, but ending up eating lunch at the best osteria in Mantova changed our plans a bit.
Osteria Ranari was recommended to us by more than one person, so our first stop in the city was to the small restaurant to make lunch reservations for their first time available at nearly 2 p.m. Once there, we were more than hungry enough.
Like all regions and cities in Italy, Mantova has its own unique culinary traditions and dishes, and Osteria Ranari specializes in that, offering only local plates. We started our meal with a large appetizer of cured meats typical and local cheeses brought out with tiny cups of homemade jam and mostarda, an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard-flavoured syrup popular in Mantova.
For food-lovers, it seems that Autumn is a perfect time to visit the city as the temperature, colors and local dishes are all at the top of their game. Mantova’s iconic ingredient is the pumpkin, perfect for fall and for this basic white girl pumpkin lover. Mind you, this isn’t artificial pumpkin spice, rather fresh, local pumpkin flesh. Choose the tortelli di zucca alla Mantovana, or Pumpkin tortelli. Instead I chose a tortino di zucca, a small “cake” of pure pumpkin on a cream sauce with speck and fried leeks sprinkled over top and it was the richest, most flavorful way I’ve ever eaten pumpkin! The combination of the super-salty speck, slightly crunchy leeks and creamy, soothing pumpkin was unique and unreal.
The others chose a pasta dish with guanciale, or pork cheek, and balsamic vinegar, and the ever-famous risotto alla pilota. As a city in Lombardia, Mantova keeps the tradition of risotto and rice dishes with this risotto alla pilota, a rice that isn’t cooked in broth like most risotto, but left separate and mixed with a ragù of sausage.
After, though a smart eater would have stopped at that point, we moved on to a plate of cavallo e polenta or horse and polenta, and the best duck steak with vegetables I’ve ever seen or had in my life – also, the only plate of duck steak I’ve ever seen or had in my life. Though both options might seem strange for American palettes, the Italians have a rich history in eating game and a variety of meats, one that they haven’t given up as they’ve modernized. Horse, in fact, is a very heavy, strong taste and the gravy it was cooked in completely soaked the polenta, another popular starch in Northern Italy. The duck, however, was the most tender meat I’ve had, not at all gamey and not a rustic flavor like I’d expect.
We washed the meal down with two bottles of Valpolicella Ripasso. It’s a heavy wine perfect for a meat-centric meal – one that comes at 14% alcohol! We came to Mantova to tour, eat, relax and get to know a nearby city in Lombardia. Instead, more than two hours after we sat down to eat, we struggled to get up from the table. Too dru–ahem–happy and too full to do any more sight seeing, we sat on the cobblestone streets in Vicolo Ducale to discuss the wonderful meal and the wonderful city until the sun began to set and it was time to go home.
I can’t wait until we go back!