A town you definitely need to add to the list of places to visit in Italy is Mantua, a little jewel in Northern Italy.
This walled city has conserved its ancient splendour and today the glorious buildings of the past merge perfectly with the modern and fancy boutiques, the tidy and clean streets, the squares and the lots of cozy eateries and cafeterias.
In 2016 it was voted the city with best quality of life in Italy and having been there I can understand why.
Once seat of the duchy of Mantua, we can still see the inheritance left by the Gonzaga family, which associated its name to the one of architects and artists of the calibre of Leon Battista Alberti, Giulio Romano and Andrea Mantegna, just to mention a few.
If you stop in Mantua just for a couple of days make visiting the Ducal Palace and the Palazzo Tè your priorities! It's possible to buy a Museum Pass that allows you to visit more sites and save money.
An important event that has been held every year at the end of summer since 1997 is the Festival of Literature, during which Mantua is crowded by an international public and the atmosphere is at the same time homey and multicultural.
Anyway, in general people here are always friendly , probably it's the slow paced lifestyle, the effect of the lake...I don't know, but I can tell you it's nice! Oh, and yes: they love to ride their bicycles!
Not only does Mantua satisfy art lovers, it is also the perfect spot for foodies (well...maybe not for vegans)!
The traditional cuisine is rich in flavours and the locals are very proud about their traditions and give great importance to food and its history, believe me!
The most traditional recipe is represented by the bespoke tortelli di zucca, fresh pasta stuffed with pumpkin, amaretto biscuit crumbs and served with butter and sage or with mince meat ragout.
Other typical products are the Mustard of Mantua, born as a luxury specialty in the 14th century, made of thin slices of dried fruit and vegetables immersed in a syrup aromatised with white mustard seeds, and the Sbrisolona cake, a crumble cake born as a popular dish that used to be called "the 3 cup cake" (for its ingredients: 1 cup white flour, 1 cup yellow flour and 1 cup sugar), it was then enriched with fancier ingredients like almonds and chocolate to please the palates of the Gonzaga family.
Anyway...it's really affordable and you will find it practically everywhere. I bought it at the Forneria delle Erbe bakery and it was delicious: crunchy and crumbly! It goes without saying that I got the one with chocolate and almonds!
For the locals food is a feast and, in general the portions are quite generous. Meat is totally in, in fact if you are vegetarian...well, it's not going to be super easy. But I recommend you go to the Osteria del Mangione, which is actually a bakery (called Casa del Pane, literally The house of bread) that becomes a restaurant for lunch and dinner. Their baked products are absolutely amazing, and their bread with the sourdough..well, delicious! Plus they have lots of vegetables, among which the unmissable pumpkin! I think this is really the best option for vegetarians in the evening... otherwise you can always ask for the "tortelli di magro" (slim tortelli...yeah, right!), fresh pasta stuffed with ricotta and herbs.
I think I ought to mention my favourite restaurant in Mantua, La Fragoletta, a family-run business where every morning the ladies of the house roll fresh pasta.
Located next to the city's walls close to the lake, this welcoming and warm restaurant is always the first place we go to when we arrive in the city. Besides their pumpkin tortelli, I had the honour to try their homemade tagliatelle, known as the "32 yolks", sprinkled with a generous amount of white truffle. Superb.
A new entry and an extremely pleasant surprise was Retròbottega Bistrot. I was there for the first time in November 2016, and I loved it.
The decor is fresh and modern, simple and clean: white walls, parquet floor and lots of herbs and plants everywhere! The staff was very helpful and the menu perfect: simple, not too long, with fresh seasonal ingredients.
We shared two dishes: my husband ordered an assortment of boiled meat served with Mantua's Mustard and the famous Green sauce, while I had a fish soup served with fresh passatelli. Stop drooling, I'll get into more details in moment:
So, the dish you see in the foreground in my husband's: the boiled meat consisted of beef, chicken and pork. The mustard, made with oranges, was notably -but pleasantly- spicy and sour and it combined well with the chicken. But I have a weakness for green sauce, so I am not objective! The Green Sauce - called salsa verde - is a typical Italian sauce mad with olive oil, garlic, capers, anchovies, vinegar or lemon juice, and parsley. For those who appreciate strong flavours!
Now, let's pass to my dish: A seafood soup served with passatelli.
O M G !!!! I didn't want to finish it, it was simply too good to be true. And, trust me, living in Venice I tend to be a bit fussy about fish.
The stock was made with clams, mussels, and a meaty fish, while the Sicilian scampi were added afterwards (so they don't overcook!).
Passatelli is a type of pasta prepared using bread crumbs, eggs, grated Parmesan and nutmeg.
Normally passatelli look paler and break easily, while these ones had more yolks and resulted at the same time tender and solid, with a soft and flavoursome texture!
Unfortunately for us, but luckily for our scale, we stayed in Mantua only a couple of days.
But the memory of all those delicacies and titbits will remain with us for a long time...or at least until our next visit!