A Visit to Mantova and the Making of Tortelli di Zucca
Have you ever been to Mantua? It's a small town in Lombardy, made particularly beautiful by the House of Gonzaga, which ruled the city from 1328 to 1708. Vittorio and I like to visit every now and then not only because we have friends, but also because we find it very relaxing.
From Venice, we took a train to Verona and changed for Mantua, it takes about 3 hours. One year, we were so crazy to go with another couple by boat! That was an experience we will never forget, as it was the morning after Redentore and the Po River was dry, so we had to take the side canals with about 12 locks in between, and it took us about 12 hours, which we spent under the scorching sun with no water, but only hot beer and other not quite legal spices, and we arrived (or should I say survived?) at the lake at sunset. We were red like lobsters and our skin was burning, but it was so beautiful, with all the water lilies around us. Anyway, that's another story!
Mantua is a city of art, walled and surrounded by a lake (divided into Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, and Lago Inferiore). The centre is elegant and clean and the people are quite helpful and friendly. The city is also known for the yearly Festival della Letteratura and for its art. The unmissable highlights of a visit will surely be Palazzo Ducale, the Cathedral and Palazzo Tè. The latter is incredible, famous especially for a room called Sala dei Giganti, with frescoes depicting the Giganthomachy, the battle of the giants with the Olympian Gods, or better... their fall, as narrated in Ovidio's Metamorphosis. The moment is the one of the revenge arriving from the sky, with Zeus prevailing on the giants with his thunder. The design by Giulio Romano does wonders in amplifying the space; it is a unique fresco that covers the entire surface and the dome ceiling, putting the spectator at the centre of the event. We can't help remain speechless every time, although we admit we are equally fascinated by the Sala di Amore e Psiche and by the artificial caves with the game of fountains, at the far end of the garden. Being Venetian, we took our time to admire Titian's Portrait of Giulio Romano.
Palazzo Tè is about 15/20 minutes walk from the centre and along the way, there are other little jewels to note, like the House of Giulio Romano, the House of Mantegna, and the Temple of San Sebastiano.
Another delight of the city is certainly its food, especially the renown tortelli di zucca, here dressed with butter and sage, and the smaller agnoli mantovani, with a meat filling and traditionally eaten in brodo (with broth) on Christmas Day.
For most of our meals we ate at Osteria alla Fragoletta, one of the restaurants of Vittorio's dear friends Giuseppe and Claire. We like to joke and say we can link it to Venice because just above the entrance there is a stone sign saying that ' in 1748 and 1749 Carlo Goldoni and Giacomo Casanova were guests here'. Anyhow, the restaurant was started by Giuseppe's parents and his mother still comes here everyday to make fresh pasta and other delicacies. Her name is Alda and she was so kind to welcome me in her kitchen and show me how she works and the equipment she uses. She's petite, yet very strong: she's used to dealing with kilos and kilos of dough and kilos and kilos of fillings, not to mention the exquisite mostarda, made with quinces and mustard. The ingredients are selected among local producers and there is great care in the preparation.
Pumpkin tortelli are stuffed with mashed pumpkin, mustard, amaretto cookie crumbles, and parmesan. In Mantua they are mostly rectangular, whereas in other towns they take different shapes and are served with ragù. For this pasta, the dough is rolled out a little thicker (consider that the thickness also varies depending on the temperature and humidity level), teaspoons of filling are put more or less at the centre, in line, then the dough if folded, the tortelli shaped by hand and finally cut.
As for agnoli, the dough is thinner, and the procedure is adding the filling, cutting, and shaping. Some give them a particular shape called ombelico di Venere (the belly button of Venus), but Alda told me she prefers her own shape as that's how she learned it as a child (although she did prove me she's well able to shape Venus's belly too!).
Of course, after seeing her work we stopped downstairs and ate pumpkin tortelli for lunch and a few slices of local salami, which differently from our regional one is thinner. Osteria alla Fragoletta has a very interesting wine list; the first evening we arrived, we were greeted with a Philipponat Champagne, followed by a Barbaresco Martinenga Tenute Casa Asinari 2015, followed by a Valpolicella Quintarelli 2010! Wow...
Besides eating, we wandered around the centre and relaxed at the lake. There are lots of nice boutiques, some bookshops and plenty of bakeries. The traditional desserts are sbrisolona, a crumble cake, torta delle rose, a moist yeasted cake with butter cream, Torta Elvezia, with eggnog, and more... but it was just too hot and, frankly speaking, I opted for an ice-cream at Puro & Bio, which offers many options for vegans too.
In 2016 Mantua was elected best city in Italy for quality of life, and I can understand why. It's a rich town, with an average high level of education and occupation, there is a green area, there are lots of cultural events, it's family friendly, and the cost of living is definitely affordable if compared to Venice, and the type of tourism is selected. Walking from Piazza delle Erbe to Piazza Sordello on Saturday evening was very nice, watching all the girls and boys dollied up, ready for their evening.
We were so looking forward being able to travel safely again, even if close to home. It was so nice to see our friends and we plan to return soon, as Giuseppe will be opening a new restaurant with four bedrooms on the floors upstairs.
Mantova is such a wonderful destination if you are in northern Italy, that I cannot but recommend it. At only 3 hours train from Venice, an ancient world of deliciousness to be discovered.