October 26, 2016
Where Florence had the Medici, Mantua had the Gonzaga who, during their reign 1328 to 1707, made the city into a court of grand splendour. Shrewd businessmen who married well, the dynasty ruled the city for more than 300 years, commissioning the finest Renaissance craftsmen they could afford.
The city is surrounded on three sides by man made lakes designed using the curves of the River Mincio. These lakes were created during the 12th century as the city’s defense system.
We decided that the best way to see as much as we could in one day was to split the day in thirds. As the stores hours are traditional in that everybody is open for business in the morning but after about 13:00 everyone closes up shop, we wandered the piazzas and stradine of Mantua first thing in the morning. First stop was for a brioche and caffe. We stopped in at La Pasticerria La Tur de Sucar where we were enticed by the tiny cream filled pastries but they did not have coffee.
So we went round the corner to La Bottega del Caffe on Via Giuseppe Verdi – how lyrical is that. Although I love my capo in B in Trieste, the machiatto was absolutely the most sublime, smooth on the palate, and satisfying cup of coffee I have ever enjoyed. There was a steady stream of Mantovani coming to buy their coffee beans because the bottega does its own torrefazione.
Then we went back to La Pasticerria to sample a few of their mignon cream filled pastries and again beyond decadent. The shop keeper told us that the Torta Sbrisolata was “append sfornata” so we bought one. “Brisa” is the word in the Mantuan dialect for crumb and it is a crispy, crumbly pastry. It has humble beginnings in the 16th century when the Contadina combined corn flour, almonds and lard to make a hearty breakfast cake. In the court of the Gonzagas, it became an elitist dessert with the addition of butter, vanilla, sugar and lemon and enjoyed soaked with some grappa.
We continued our walk past Piazza delle Erbe and saw this sign.
Mantua’s Lambrusco is a young sparkling ruby-red wine, frothy when first poured. The wine is a blend of four grapes (viadanese, marani, salamino and maestri) and was awarded DOC designation of origin accreditation in 1987. The name comes from Lambrusco “vitis grape arbor,” name by which the Romans called the wild vine growing on the edges of cultivated fields.
The next window was so enticing that we had to go in and marvel at all the colorful mostardas. Mostarda di Mantova (also called mostarda di mele campanine or mostarda mantovana) was originally made from small, sour green apples called mele Campanine and mustard oil. Today many different kinds of candied fruit are used to make the spicy preserves enjoyed as an accompaniment to cheeses and salumis.
Pig breeding in the area goes back to the Etruscans of the 5th century. Pork was an important dish of the Renaissance regularly enjoyed by the Gonzaga family and is still a major Mantuan staple.
Sorta di Tagliatelle is a actually a dessert made with sweet egg noodles atop an almond cake.
That was how we spent the morning, drawn to these culinary delights displayed in the shop windows.
Then it was time for lunch. We had stopped into an art studio and chatted with the resident artist. We asked where we could have lunch and she suggested La Osteria dei Quattro Tette just around the corner.
And she told us to try the risotto. The Osteria opened at 12:30 but it was just noon when we arrived so we came back about 12:35. There were already a number of people going in and we followed them. The door opened into a narrow space with long tables and wooden benches for seating. I saw right away that the regulars were headed towards these communal tables and we the tourists were shown through an open doorway to a smaller space with three tables. I say that this was a tourist space because at the table infront of us was a French couple that spoke impeccable Italian and behind us was a Germanic couple. The menu was read out to us.
We asked for Risotto alla Pilota and some Lambrusco. Mantua is rice country with a flat, ploughed countryside, cut by rivers and irrigation canals. It is believed that Federico I Gonzaga first introduced rice to the area in the 1500’s. Risotto all Pilota, using Vialone nano rice, is prepared with pork, garlic, pepper, and onion , sautéed in butter, and served in a sort of pyramid shape. This dish was named after the workers who husked the rice – the pilote – who turned the “pile”, a large stone mortar that was used to separate the rice from the husk. The cooking method results in a rice that is grainy and not the creamy risotta I was expecting.
I liked this description in Italian that I found on the internet so have included it in this post.
“Il riso alla pilota, è un tradizionale piatto popolare mantovano, caposaldo della cucina locale, che deve il suo – nome agli operai che erano addetti alla pilatura del riso, chiamati appunto “piloti”. La pila era un grande mortaio azionato a mano, dove il riso veniva depurato, e i suoi operai, specializzati nella preparazione di questo piatto, ne erano accaniti consumatori. La particolarità di questo pietanza è la sua cottura, che è tutta giocata sulla giusta proporzione tra acqua e riso, sui tempi di cottura, sull’uso del coperchio e su un preciso tempo di riposo a fuoco spento. Il risultato finale è un risotto che non si presenta cremoso ma asciutto e soprattutto “sgranato.”
In the afternoon we sampled Torta delle Rose (Rose Cake). It is said that this sumptuous cake resembling a bouquet of roses was created for the wedding in 1490 of Isabella d’este to Francesco II Gonzaga. The rosebuds symbolize the beauty of Isabella, who was only sixteen at the time of her marriage.
All this and then we headed out to visit the Palazzo Te the objective of our visit to Mantova.