Mantova cuisine

This is an excerpt from the book “Mantua a complete guide” by Enrico Massetti.
Restaurants in Piazza Erbe - Photo © jimforest
Restaurants in Piazza Erbe – Photo © jimforest

We have distinguished five topics which, to us, seem the most significant, although they are not the only ones.

Agnolini are not a typologically original dish, but the filling and some ways of serving them ( bevrin vin) are typically Mantuan.

There is little to argue on tortelli di zucca and luccio in salsa as these two dishes are absolutely of Mantuan origin.

Duck has been chosen to represent the country yards where housewives raise their guinea fowl, geese, capons, doves, rabbits, hens, etc.

Lastly, the hog, the meat of which is minced and added to risottos, or used as the main ingredient in salamelle, salami and cotechini.

After pinpointing the topics, we “forced” the restaurateurs to reflect on the methods of preparation that they proposed.  Each recipe reflects the sensibility and the choice of restaurants and also the territorial differences in traditional dishes within the province.

The other recipes, instead, are free interpretations of just as many topics identified as strictly characterizing Mantuan cuisine. Therefore a mention had to be made of frogs and snails, braised horsemeat, Sbrisolona cake, fresh water fish presented as protagonists or as an addition to risottos. Neither could we leave out the feast-day guinea fowl or sugolo (creamy pudding made of grape must).

The absence of details on wine does not preoccupy us as Mantuan territory does not produce fine quality wines apart from a few hillside exceptions, but a word must spent on bread or bread-like products. Not so much attention will be given to bread itself, to be truthful, because Ferrara and Cremona can vaunt a tradition of superior quality, but to the forms invented by Mantuan cuisine. Certainly, popular tastes are met by the schiacciatina which substitutes the bread roll, brioches, and various modern snacks. It even appears, especially on request, on the tables of tourist restaurants.

The snack fantasy has also influenced the schiacciata, somewhere between a soft schiacciatina and a bun, which, in Mantua, we find enriched with scratching (grepole), ham, olives, onions and still more. Both the schiacciatina and schiacciata are noble breads, they need no accompaniment. All they require is a cappuccino or, even better, a good glass of wine.  On festive occasions or in a classic menu integrating a coordinated sequence of dishes, Mantuan cuisine provides a series of courses that recall the complexity of sideboard services and the Court Table, simplified nowadays but with the clearly recognizable characteristics of Po Valley menus.

With only a few hors d’oeuvres, Mantuan cuisine on many occasions offers a light soup as a starter, passing then to a more substantial pasta dish. By modern restaurateurs, the tendency has been to transform popular dishes (luccio in salsa, polenta and gras pista’,salami) revisiting with Gonzaga recipes(Capon a’ la Stefani, soused fish) into “antipasti”.

No way can the first course be replaced: the modern “single platter” is in fact an enriched first course, as in the case of risotto with puntel or rice and fried fish.

Pasta is overlooked only when polenta is the protagonist, usually accompanied by stracotto or salami, lard, scratching, gorgonzola or other less traditional preparations (baccala’ (salted cod), grilled pork, etc.).

On feast-days, there are usually two second courses: first, boiled meats including those used How to make the broth and others boiled apart (tongue, calf’s head), then the roasts (guinea-fowl, duck in particular).

Mantuan menus usually end with Grana or other cheeses.

The traditional dessert, mostly traditional “homemade” cakes, cannot be missing, and this was so even before the advent of the sickly sweet tiramisù.

Tradition calls for a homemade “nocino” (walnut liqueur) as a final digestive.

We are fully aware that the written word is not a cook’s usual means of communication. Kitchen talk consists of aromas, flavors and aesthetic equilibrium. A cook expresses the many tastes of a complex process which contains too many variables to be summarized in a brief schematic text. You only have to think of the importance of the materials used in the preparation, the times required for cooking or uniting the elements, the past experience that suggests small but precious tips.  This is why restaurateurs make no mystery of their recipes because they cannot be reproduced, even in the most sophisticated multi-medial forms, whether supported by filmed sequences or meticulously articulated and illustrated explanations.  On the contrary, a recipe is an invitation to satisfy your curiosity, to enquire and to try.

Taken from “Di terra e di acqua” ed. Franco Angeli.

Courtesy of Mantova e

Agnoli in brodo | Tortelli di zucca Mantovani | Luccio in salsa | Frogs and snails