Mantua is a city floating between land and sky, and one for which many have waxed poetic. Thanks to its lakes, the city of Mantua shines with its willow and reed lined shores. In our comprehensive guide to the minor lakes of Italytoday we focus on what to see and where to eat in the lakes of Mantua.
Mantua, the city born from water
The city ofMantua owes much of its charm to nature of course, but also to an 800 year-old hydraulic engineeringsystem. The layout dates back to1190, which leads many to believe that the lakes are actually natural and not man-made. The mastermind behind this monumental and innovative work was Bergamo engineerAlberto Pitentino, who devised the urban plan in the hope to avoid the area’s swamps and marshlands to take over. The artificial barriers over time created 4 lakes:half way through the 1700s Paiolo lake was drained, leaving only Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and LagoInferiore. And that’s how the city of Mantua became a peninsula.
The city was dominated first by the Etruscans, then the Romans and later occupied by Goths, Byzantines, Franks and Lombards. The concept of“free municipality” ended with the political control of the Signoria dei Bonacolsi, ousted later by the Gonzaga rule. It is precisely at this time that Mantua reaches the peak in splendor, when during the Renaissance, Federico II Gonzaga, son of the MarquisFrancesco II andIsabella d’Este, was named Duke of Mantua byEmperorCarlo V.
What to see in the area
As a world-famous art city Mantua owes much of its popularity to its lakes. Lago Superiore is the largest, connected to the others by the Vaso di Porto dam, also known asVasarone. Lago di Mezzo is the smallest but the deepest, with its 15 meter-depth. It is divided byLago Inferiore by the dam and theSan Giorgio bridge, which dates to 1199. This is the habitat of a native plant, theTrapa natans, also known as the water chestnut. Lago Inferiore is the shallowest, separated by the valley(Vallazza) and the course of theMincio river by the Masetti dam.
Enjoying the outdoors
Besides the monuments and palaces of Mantua, like the palazzo Ducale, palazzo Te or theDuomo (Cattedrale di San Pietro), we’ll focus on the outdoor activities available around the lakes. The city in fact offers heaps of naturalistic options, in particular dedicated to sports fishing. Lago di Mezzo andLago Inferiore are rich with local wels catfish, while the Mincio side and the marshes of the Po river abound with carp, catfish, pike, perch, tenchand eel. The best time to stop and admire the spectacle of nature is sunset, when wildlife animates the lake. Among these pheasant, foxes and hares. A particular time of year is also summer, when between July and September Lago Superiore is filled with lotus flowers actually visible from the shore of the Belfiore park. Legend has it that a star-crossed lover who had losthis beloved in one of the lakes scattered lotus seeds as a visible memory of her face each time one blossomed.
At only 5 kilometers from the city is also Bosco della Fontana, ancient hunting reserve that belonged to the Gonzagas, and which is currently home to manybird andinsect-watching activities. The 220 acre forest can only be visited on foot or by bicycle, it is the perfect habitat for birds, badgers, skunks, squirrels and wild boars.
What to eat in Mantua
Mantua cuisine has pastoral origins, at the same time it is creative and inherits much of the cookery of the noble courts.In fact it has now evolved into a perfect sum of Lombard-Emilian tradition – with dishes conceived at the time of the Gonzaga rule – and modern elements. Two symbolic products of local gastronomy are rice and pumpkin. The former often enhanced by salamella mantovana, which is a peeled and crumbled sausage. Pumpkin becomes the perfect filling for tortelli added withamaretti, as well as with local candied fruit mustard and nutmeg. Other famed pasta dishes from this area are agnolini mantovani, small pasta pockets servedin a meat broth as an antipasto. There’s alsobigoli con le sardelle, thick hand-extruded noodles enjoyed during the annual Sagra della Bigolada celebration held on Ash Wednesday. Entrees feature exquisite mixed boiled cuts of meat paired with mustard; slow cooked stracottomantovano made with donkey and served with polenta. Various types of offal, cotechino and snails complete the scene. There’s obviously a nice choice of lake fish , in particular eel and pike. Last but certainly not least, the Mantua desserts, above all two representative ones are sbrisolona and theElvezia akaHelvezia.
TIPS EXTRACTED FROM GUIDA RISTORANTI D’ITALIA 2016
Antico Mulino (Villimpenta)
The trattoria built in a refurbished old mill is characteristic and cozy. The cuisine focuses on local tradition mostly lake fish and risotto dishes. The service is courteous, there are a few good labels in addition to the house wine, and offers the opportunity of hosting weddings in the charming outdoors during summer.
Aquila Nigra (Mantua)
Husband and wife Giorgio Bini and Vera Cassini offer traditional Mantua cucine in their centrally located restaurant, employing fresh and wholesome ingredients. The place is further made elegant and warm thanks to the red marble fireplaceand numerous frescoes on the walls. The selection of cheeses is top-notch and the homemade desserts. Service is attentive and caring.
Carlo Govi (Mantua)
At a stone’s throw fromPalazzo Te, Carlo Govi offers traditional local dishes belonging to the Gonzaga heritage, addinghem with modern and creative twists. The setting is elegant and intimate, with few sittings. Pasta dishes grace the menu, most of them freshly stretched and filled; as well as lake fish. The homemade desserts are equally good, as well as a careful wine selection, featuring both local and regional labels. During summer it’s possible to reserve a table in the garden.
Corte Matilde (Pieve di Coriano)
Local land dishes and great attention to seasonality for this restaurant built in a restored countrycourtyard. At the helm are Marco Fincatti andSabrina Guidetti. On the table many local specialties: parmigiano, balsamic, local salami andtruffles. The kitchen uses local organic meats, on the menu are cheesesserved with homemadesauces and pickled vegetables. The wine list is sensible and there’s a wide choice of craft beer.
Da Pietro (Castiglione delle Stiviere)
Welcoming and vivacious restaurant which serves grand classics of local Mantua cuisine. The products are fresh and wholesome, and become inviting and skillfully assembled dishes. There’s a “light” menu Monday-Friday and more original dishes during the weekend. The wine list can be read off an iPad, the service is courteous and attentive, and there’s the opportunity of dining on the terrace during the warmer months.
Del Pescatore (Canneto sull’Oglio)
The thirty year history of the Santini family needs no further introduction. Elegance, clean lines, refined flavors and dishes carefully studied in minute detail reign supreme. Chef Nadia’s kitchen and the hospitality of Mr.Antonio make this a unique dining experience. In addition to the signature dishes, offers might range from delightful desserts and select a bottle from the rich and interesting wine list. Three forks in the 2016 Ristoranti d’Italia guide.
Due Cavallini (Mantua)
A familiar looking trattoria that has been the meeting place of Mantua cuisine for the last70 years. The setting is welcoming and elegant in a beautiful period palazzo in the center of town. The cuisine is traditional and paired to good house wine and a number of fine domestic labels.Service is courteous and efficient.
Il Rifugio (Mantua)
Situated on the shores ofLago Superiore, and equipped with a dock landing, Il Rifugio is a trattoria that will not disappoint lovers of the area’s local cuisine. At the helm isFrancesco Panza who offers patrons traditional Lombard dishes using fresh and wholesome ingredients. The service is famous for being impeccable. A compact yet smart wine list completes the offer.
Hostaria del Teatro (Castiglione delle Stiviere)
Chef Claudio Truzzi’s offer has been growing exponentially year after year. His cuisine showcases fine ingredients without ever distorting it. Hostaria del Teatro welcomes clients in an elegant, refined and welcoming ambiance, also thanks to the wise and careful guidance of wifeElena. The wine list is noteworthy and original, the service attentive and caring and there’s a delightful outdoor eating space for the warmer months.
Hostaria Viola (Castiglione delle Stiviere)
Thistrattoria born in1909 is now managed by the last of 4 generations. Hostaria Viola is an authentic expressionof Mantua gastronomy. Simple dishes are carefully assembled, the great desserts are all homemadeand the atmosphereis welcoming. Attentive service and a small but well-structured wine list with many domestic labels, a few local bottles and various international and natural wine references complete the offer.
La Locanda delle Grazie (Curtatone)
Thistrattoria attracts clients from the entire peninsula, here local products symbolize the offer. TheLocanda delle Grazie ofDaniela andFernando Aldigheri focuses on high quality products, care in detail, warm family-like welcome and impeccable service. Delightfuldesserts, ample wine list with various affordable listings.ThreeGamberi in the Guida Ristoranti d’Italia 2016.
La Stella (Porto Mantovano)
The traditional cuisineis top-notch in this hundred year-old trattoria. Located in lushparco del Mincio, patrons will find a relaxed and welcoming setting, made even more so thanks to the excellent service. The menu features typical Mantua dishes which employ wholesome and local ingredients.Desserts are all homemade and the variegated wine list is carefully curated.
Osteria delle cinque lire (Roncoferraro)
This trattoria located at a stone’s throw from the Mincio river features an ample gastronomic offer. The menu changes daily according to local product availability. Their fresh pasta and meat dish reputation is solid, service is courteous and direct. The wine cellar is not immense but reliable. The homemade desserts are stellar.
TIPS EXTRACTED FROMGUIDA PASTICCERIE D’ITALIA 2016
Antoniazzi (Bagnolo San Vito)
The kitchen and pastry shop located in a centrally located villa has been in operation since1968. Enzo Antoniazzi is a bakery guru for dolce lovers. Wide choice of fragrant croissants, bite-sized pastries, both classic and modern concept cakes and myriad biscuits and cookies. Everything is baked in accordance with product seasonality.
Pasticceria Atena (Sabbioneta)
Gianni Margini’s bakery is a welcomingvenue boasting a small outside patio and a number of indoor rooms.The phenomenaltiramisù can be paired with a fine espresso, but the classic pastries, bite-sized pastries and biscuits of all kinds shine equally. Tasty and traditional cakes and semifreddi, plus an assortment of savory specialties like tramezzini tea sandwiches, mini pizzas and panini complete the offer.
TIPS EXTRACTED FROMGUIDA BAR D’ITALIA 2016
Bar Venezia (Mantua)
Historic venue located on Mantua’s main street which boasts an outdoor seating area and various indoor rooms. Excellent espressos and cappuccinos are served impeccably. Fine assortment of breakfast pastries, classic cakes and biscuits. The skilled barmen mix quality cocktails at aperitivo time.
Caffè Borsa Antoniazzi (Mantua)
Another venue owned by theAntoniazzi family located near the pedestrian area in Mantua. Solid coffee and cappuccino reputation, in addition to a rich selection of sweet and savory confections, according to the time of day. We loved the excellent filled breakfast brioches, baked cakes and bite-sized pastries hail directly from theBagnolo San Vito kitchen. Cocktails and interesting lunch offers, plus the opportunity of purchasing tasty treats in the shop area.
Famous for itsaperitivo, renownedCaravatti overlooks one of the city’s most beautiful piazzas. Fine espresso coffees and cappuccinos, wide offer of brioches and typicalcakes likeSbrisolona or Elvezia. Snacks and other savory items grace the lunch menu, in the evening, the evening is reserved for cocktails and themed events.
Centrale caffè e gelato (Marcaria)
Managed by theAraldi family, this is a must-go place with a refined offer. Espresso coffees andcappuccinos are top-notch, in addition to excellent cakes and pastries, homemade jams and cream fillings made with quality ingredients. There’s a nice lunch offer with savory snacks and sandwiches.
Viennoiserie Gian (Castiglione delle Stiviere)
Gianluca Musatti is a renownedpastry chef who doesn’t need much of an introduction. After his time in famed restaurants he has opened his own place: an elegantly designed, refines space. The coffee and cappuccinos are excellent;the pastry andcake offer is classy and added with items like painau chocolat or studded with sultanas, anche the original chocolate breadsticks. During lunch the dishes are tasty and original ThreeChicchi and ThreeTazzine in theGuida Bar d’Italia 2016.
Antico Mulino | Villimpenta | via Tione, 2 | tel. 0376 667549 |www.ristorantemantovaanticomulino.it
Antoniazzi | Bagnolo San Vito | via R. Coventino, 15 | tel. 0376 414107 |www.antoniazzi.biz
Aquila Nigra | Mantua | vicolo Bonacolsi, 4 | tel. 0376 327180 |www.aquilanigra.it
Bar Venezia | Mantua | Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, 10 | tel. 0376 363499 |www.barvenezia.it
Caffè Borsa Antoniazzi | Mantua | Corso della Libertà, 6 | tel. 0376 225818 |www.antoniazzi.biz
Centrale caffè e gelato | Marcaria, loc. Ospitaletto | via Vittorio Veneto, 29 | tel. 0376 903028
Caravatti | Mantua | via Broletto, 16 | tel. 0376 327826
Carlo Govi | Mantua | viale Gorizia, 13b | tel. 0376.355133 |www.carlogoviristorante.it
Corte Matilde | Pieve di Coriano | via Pelate, 38 | tel. 0386 39352 |www.cortematilde.it
Da Pietro | Castiglione delle Stiviere | via Giovanni Chiassi, 19 | tel. 0376 673718 |www.osteriadapietro.it
Dal Pescatore | Canneto sull’Oglio | loc. Runate, 17 | tel.0376.723001 |www.dalpescatore.com
Due Cavallini | Mantua | via Salnitro, 5 | tel. 0376322084 |www.trattoriaduecavallinimantova.it
Il Rifugio | Mantua, località Belfiore | via Lungolago dell’Arlecchino, 4 | tel. 0376 288367
Hostaria del Teatro | Castiglione delle Stiviere | via Bernardo Ordanino, 5B | tel. 0376 670813 |www.hostariadelteatro.it
Hostaria Viola | Castiglione delle Stiviere | via Giuseppe Verdi, 32 | tel. 0376 670000 |www.hostariaviola.com
La Locanda delle Grazie | Curtatone, frazione Grazie | via Pio X, 2 | tel. 0376 348038
La Stella | Porto Mantovano | Via della Libertà, 129 | tel. 0376 300635 |www.trattorialastella.com
Nizzoli | Dosolo, località Villastrada | via G. Garibaldi, 18 | tel. 0375 838066 |www.ristorantenizzoli.com
Osteria delle Cinque Lire | Roncoferraro | Str. Ostigliese, 1 | tel. 338 9514666 |
Pasticceria Atena | Sabbioneta | via Vespasiano Gonzaga, 41 | tel. 0375 52309 |www.pasticceriaatena.it
Viennoiserie Gian | Castiglione delle Stiviere | via Marta Tana, 11 | tel. 0376 903028 |www.viennoiseriegian.it
by Francesca Fiore
Translated by Eleonora Baldwin