Where to stay

Broletto: Very centrally located, recently refurbished three-star, close to the shops and cafés. Doubles from £75. Via Accademia 1, 00 39 0376 326784, hotelbroletto.com

Casa Museo Palazzo Valenti Gonzaga: This historic palazzo offers three B&B suites with original frescoes and antique furnishings. Sleep in the room of a princess or a cardinal. Doubles from £104. Via Pietro Frattini 7, 00 39 0376 364524, valentigonzaga.com

Casa Poli: Modern-style, four-star hotel in the city centre, halfway between the two big Palazzi, Ducale and Te. Doubles from £98. Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi 32, 00 39 0376 288170, http://www.hotelcasapoli.it/?c...

Hotel Rechigi: If you crave a design hotel with modern art, this four- star in the city centre is your best bet. Doubles from £99. Via Calvi Pietro Fortunato 30, 00 39 0376 320781, rechigi.com

Palazzo Arrivabene A handsome 15th-century private palazzo offering three spacious rooms. Doubles from £99. Via Fratelli Bandiera 20, 00 39 0376 328685, palazzoarrivabene.net

Palazzo Castiglioni Just five rooms but my they’re grand. Period furnishings and piazza views. Doubles from £132.

Piazza Sordello 12, 00 39 0348 8034576, palazzocastiglionimantova.com

Travel Information

Italy is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the euro. Mantua is situated in the northern Lombardy region, 40km southwest of Verona. April temperatures are mild, with an average high of 18°C and average low of 7°C. The hottest month is July, with an average high of 28°C. The city is a 45-minute train ride from Verona, or two hours from Milan.

Where to eat

Aquila Nigra A Michelin-starred, grown-up restaurant near the main piazza that has a great wine list. Just next door is sister Osteria la Porta Accanto, a less formal alternative. £54. Vicolo Bonacolsi 4, 00 39 0376 327180, aquilanigra.it

Bar Caravatti In the hub of historic Mantua, and perfect for breakfast – try the risini (rice cookies) – and aperitivo cocktails to be drunk at any hour. Via Broletto 16, 00 39 0376 327826

Dal Pescatore An hour’s drive west of Mantua, this three-Michelin-star restaurant is a temple of food and comfort. Tasting menu £141. Runate, Canneto sull’Oglio, 00 39 0376 723001, dalpescatore.com

Il Cigno Trattoria dei Martini A few minutes’ walk from Piazza Sordello, this upmarket trattoria focuses on beautifully sourced home cooking, with fine wines. £36. Piazza Carlo d’Arco 1, 00 39 0376 327101, ristoranteilcignomantova.com

La Cucina Stylish atmosphere for a fun, relaxed lunch at the big communal table. Daily special pastas and mains. £23. Via Guglielmo Oberdan 17, 00 39 0376 1513735, lacucina-mantova.it

La Locanda delle Grazie The best place to eat after taking a look around the Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie – a church dating from 1399 in a small town about 8km from Mantua. This lively trattoria serves authentic Mantuan cuisine, with ingredients sourced locally, and has welcoming hosts. Tasting menu £21. Via San Pio X 2, Grazie, 00 39 0376 348038

Osteria da Pietro On the way to Lake Garda, stop in this village osteria with a garden terrace for terrific cooking by Fabiana Ferri. £45. Via Giovanni Chiassi 19, Castiglione delle Stiviere, 00 39 0376 673718, osteriadapietro.it

Food Glossary

Pork sausage, served hot
Grana Padano
A PDO cheese made in the Po valley
River pike
Freshwater shrimp
Delicatessen that specialises in charcuterie
Second or main courses
Pasta sheet from which noodles or tortelli are cut

Food and Travel Review

When I arrive in Mantua, it’s wrapped in a blanket of fog. Muted shades of terracotta and ochre from the city’s noble palazzi emerge in pools of light from lamps along its winding, medieval streets. Sheltering under their arched porticoes, I take refuge in the buzzing Bar Venezia and order a glass of new-age lambrusco and a plate of local salami.

A poster displays a Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Isabella d’Este, the city’s Renaissance ruler. Her marriage in 1490 to Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, when she was just 16, heralded the city’s cultural golden age. Highly educated, the brilliant Isabella came from the nearby city-state, Ferrara. In Mantua she grew into one of Italy’s most influential and inspiring humanists: her patronage of the period’s cutting-edge artists, architects and musicians made Mantua’s court – and banquets – the envy of Europe.

One Renaissance writer described a ‘meat and fish’ banquet for 104 guests that Isabella attended in 1529 at her father’s palace in Ferrara. It featured 25 sugar sculptures depicting the trials of Hercules, and a list of courses that runs over five pages: 2,000 oysters, 25 stuffed peacocks, fried turbots and roasted goats, 125 eels, a dozen songbirds per person and enough animals, birds and fish to fill a zoo, plus rare fruits and nuts, spices and sweetmeats. There were theatrical and musical interludes, and after dinner guests danced until dawn. This was entertaining on a grand scale.

The Gonzagas’ 500-room palace complex, Palazzo Ducale, is as big as seven football pitches and dominates Piazza Sordello, the city’s main square. It houses remarkable works by Mantegna and Rubens, the court’s official painters, and by Pisanello and Giulio Romano. The most famous room, and a mecca for art pilgrims, is Mantegna’s ‘Camera degli Sposi’, an intimate chamber covered completely in illusionistic frescoes depicting the artist’s patrons, the Gonzagas. (In 2012 an earthquake damaged the entrance but the room is expected to re-open by summer 2014.) I’m staying in Palazzo Castiglioni, a magnificent 14th-century noble palace whose windows look out across the cobbles of Piazza Sordello to Palazzo Ducale and the cathedral’s baroque marble façade. My suite could accommodate a modest banquet.

In the clear light of day, the small, walled city takes on a new guise. Built on three islands in the Mincio river – a tributary of the mighty Po – Mantua, or Mantova as the Italians call it, was originally surrounded by water. Seen from the far bank, the city resembles a crown, with crenelated towers and cupolas rising above its encircling walls. These, and the wide natural moats, provided efficient defences against marauding barbarians. The site’s strategic position along the trade route that linked Italy with Germany enticed civilizations from the Etruscans to the Romans to live there in defiance of the malarial swamps upon which it was built.

Today, Mantua is the capital of the province of the same name, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The malaria’s long gone – though nearby rice paddies still generate their share of summer mosquitoes – and the city lives a staid provincial life in which most people cycle rather than drive. Festivaletteratura, a literary festival held every September, attracts world-class authors and plenty of tourists.

For those of us more interested in food, spring and autumn are great times to visit. In spring, tender wild greens from around the province find their way into every meal, while autumn is when the pumpkins are in season for Mantua’s most iconic dish, tortelli di zucca. Ask any Italian for these pasta cushions’ birthplace and they’ll reply immediately: ‘Mantova!’. Here in Lombardy’s plains, and across neighbouring Emilia-Romagna, egg pasta rules. It’s so yellow it looks dyed: it’s not uncommon to enrich the dough with 20 or 30 yolks per kilo of flour (you can make it just fine with a mere handful, though the texture won’t be as rich or elastic). As for the famous tortelli’s filling, that too is open to interpretation, despite the ingredients being limited to just pumpkin, with optional amaretto biscuit crumbs and mostarda – a fruit conserve spiked with mustard oil.

‘Each village and family in Mantua province has its own way of making tortelli,’ explains Vera Bini, chef at Aquila Nigra, a fine, traditional restaurant near Palazzo Ducale. When I visit, she’s baking pumpkin for her filling. ‘Some leave out the amaretti but that hint of almond bitterness complements the sweet pumpkin and the salty Grana Padano we grate on top,’ she says. And that’s what’s so great about Italian food: cooks, instead of cluttering dishes with too many ingredients, keep each recipe focused on its central flavours. Vera rolls out her sfoglia (pasta sheet) thin enough for the orange filling to show through, folding the pasta over tablespoonfuls of pumpkin paste and cutting it deftly into plump squares. She boils them quickly then serves them in a shallow bowl, with melted butter and a grating of cheese.

I’m feasting on pumpkin tortelli for lunch and dinner. They’re on every menu and it’s fascinating to see how each woman varies the theme. Yes – each woman. For I’ve discovered that the best restaurants in Mantua are in the hands of female chefs. They cook in traditional – if lighter – ways: this is not the city for avant-garde manipulations or food play. I’m not sure I’d want my tortelli deconstructed, anyway. I like them just as they are: a comforting serving of soul food that’s firmly rooted in Mantua’s cultural history.

‘Mantova has always been una terra di buongustai – a land of epicures,’ a scholarly diner at the next table tells me proudly as we discuss our primi piatti. ‘Michelangelo drew tortelli on a pictogram he made for his deaf cook to illustrate what he wanted for lunch.’ It was thought that pumpkin tortelli were a Renaissance dish, but recent research pushes their roots back to the Middle Ages, if not earlier.

Pasta here comes two ways: wet and dry. Thumbnail-sized agnoli are stuffed with lightly spiced meat paste and served in bowls of steaming meat or chicken broth, in brodo. For extra punch, try agnoli in sorbir, where a splash of sparkling red lambrusco is added to the broth at the table – but make sure it’s good quality wine or the result can be sour. Fettuccine noodles, ravioli and tortelli are mostly presented ‘dry’ on their plates, with just a sauce or melted butter. Other primi include the unusual rice dish riso alla pilota, whose cooking style leaves the rice granular rather than creamy.

There are many types of fresh pasta at Panificio Freddi, a large, lively bakery and pasta shop, which produces Mantua’s best breads and cakes, including la torta di tagliatelle, bathed in rum and topped with sweet noodles and almonds. It also bakes a fine version of Mantua’s favourite dessert, la torta sbrisolona. You’ll find this flat, almond-studded cake in every bakery and on every menu; it’s best eaten with the hands by breaking off chunks, like knobbly shortbread. And if pumpkin’s not your thing, fear not. Mantua’s cuisine is mainly meat driven. Like Emilia-Romagna, this part of Lombardy is known for its excellent salt-cured pork, from the cold-cut coppa (pork shoulder) or salame mantovano to the cotechino (fatty pork sausage) that’s customarily boiled and served hot with lentils or polenta in winter.

Horses were venerated in courtly circles, as the magnificent Sala dei Cavalli reveals. Painted in the 1520s by Giulio Romano in Palazzo Te, the Gonzagas’ pleasure palace on the other side of town, the lofty salon’s frescoes feature life-sized, full-body portraits of the family’s steeds. The other must-see room here is the Camera dei Giganti, in which careering 3D giants seem to be bringing the whole building down on our heads.

Despite this reverence for their four-legged friends, the Italians are less sentimental about animals than we are. So, if you’re squeamish, steer clear of another Mantuan favourite, brasato di somarina or stracotto d’asino, otherwise known as stewed donkey. It’s cooked in a hearty wine sauce, served with polenta and tastes a lot like beef. The city’s aqueous origins are also reflected in some of its key dishes, from frogs and pike to duck.

The best place to buy seasonal vegetables and rub shoulders with the locals is the Saturday farmers’ market, set up along the narrow canal, Lungorio IV Novembre. It’s a great scene, with many food artisans hawking their wares, from honey to home-cured salami. To learn how to cook like a Mantuan, Le Tamerici holds frequent cooking classes in English and Italian from its mostarda- making workshop outside town. It also has a well-stocked shop for preserves and other quality foods.

Il Cigno restaurant is decorated with 20th-century art and has a pretty garden for summer dining. Here the modest Sandra Martini cooks wonderful, pared-down Mantuan food from her 16th-century kitchen. A warm rabbit salad is livened up with pistachios, pine nuts, redcurrants and juniper berries. Her large pumpkin tortello comes alone, like a roomy cushion, and contrasts the almond’s bitterness with the faint piquancy of homemade apple mostarda. A fine-boned shoulder of Apennine kid is cooked in butter and served with artichokes. ‘We want to maintain Mantua’s food culture,’ explains her dapper husband, Gaetano, as he pours the wine. ‘There’s a risk these ancient recipes will die out if diners keep clamouring for fast food and modern dishes.’

A short drive from Mantua – and a must for lovers of high gastronomy – is Ristorante dal Pescatore, an elegant country restaurant whose chef, Nadia Santini, was lauded as World’s Best Female Chef in 2013 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. Nadia and her family also hold the Italian record for three Michelin stars: they’ve had them since 1996. Nadia, who is now flanked in the kitchen by her 37-year old son Giovanni, has a unique voice in Italian food.

‘Cooking is like art, it stirs the emotions,’ she says as we walk through her vegetable patch to feed the geese at the bottom of the garden. ‘Like poetry and music, it creates a harmony of soul and mind. I grew up on a farm and know that who we are depends on what we eat: good, energy-giving food matters.’

A modern-day humanist, Nadia’s cooking keeps close to its natural sources. The elegant dining rooms seat just 26 and are surrounded by gardens – so the dishes never lose their just-picked, just-cooked freshness. Nadia has a personal way with herbs: she adds a pinch of chopped lemon zest and rosemary to lentil soup to make it more digestible. Pan-roasted native duck breast is lifted with a dusting of raw rosemary and lemon verbena; it’s served with warm fruit mostarda and traditional aged balsamic vinegar. Pasta is handmade by Giovanni, whose brother, Alberto, now runs the dining room with their father, Antonio.

‘The handover to the younger generation is key in Italy’s restaurants if we want to give our children a chance,’ says Antonio. ‘Architecture and art may be frozen in time but our culinary culture needs to be revitalised – in keeping with tradition – if it’s to survive.’ Such an approach bodes well for the future of one of the most delicious, beautiful and unspoiled parts of Italy. Mantua’s traditionalism is its best selling point – go there and taste for yourself the authentic, satisfying soul food that generations of women have been preparing with love from Isabella d’Este’s time to the present day.

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