panorama  › Detour 24

Mantua, where a storied past, great food and sheer beauty conspire to make life sweeter

by Stefano Salis

You are lucky. If you made it to Mantua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you were guided by luck, or perhaps more probably by beauty, and now beauty will be your guide throughout this stupendous Renaissance city that knew how to zealously preserve its numerous qualities: art, gastronomy, and overall good living. . In fact, in the four centuries in which it was under the influence of the Gonzaga family, which reigned over the city until 1707, it was one of the most beautiful courts and one of the greatest centers of art in Europe. Pisanello, Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Mantegna, Giulio Romano have all left lasting impressions on this city.

9 am breakfast
There are many options. Instead of one bar in particular, we recommend certain piazzas, which are city's beating heart. Piazza Sordello, Piazza delle Erbe, or Piazza Matilde di Canossa: each will offer you a more than satisfactory cappuccino and brioche: what's important is to enjoy the cappuccino and brioche, whilst serenely watching the bustle of the crowded city.

10 am time to see some masterpieces
You do not need to push yourselves much more, you're already here and ready to go see the stunning work the city offers. The start of your visit, the morning kicks off with a masterpiece. Once you are in the main piazza, head into the Palazzo Ducale (the ducal palace), home of the Gonzaga court. It's a huge and diverse palace, with the second largest roof in Italy after the Vatican. A guided tour is recommended, though you should head as quickly as you can to the Camera degli Sposi (or, the Bridal Chamber), frescoed by Andrea Mantegna and dedicated to Ludovico III Gonzaga and to his wife Barbara of Brandenburg. The room had been closed for restoration after suffering a crack from the 2012 earthquake, but is now back to its original splendor. At the end of your visit you can certainly linger through Piazza delle Erbe, with the Palazzo della Ragione, the clock tower and the Rotonda di San Lorenzo.

1 pm lunch
Mantua, a city that loves the good life and knows how to enjoy it, excels in some well-known dishes, such as the torta sbrisolona, il riso alla pilotta, or the famous squash tortelli. In the surroundings of the city it isn't hard to still find good trattorias on the river, but the city center isn't without its own culinary excellence.
L'Aquila Nigra is the place where you can have a formal lunch. Sorbir d'agnoli, tortelli burro e grana, and il luccio in salsa d'acciughe are three great seasonal dishes. Or, if you prefer, you can eat in a less formal setting, with the same level of excellence as L'Aquila Nigra, at La Porta Accanto, the bistrot run by the older brother of the owner of L'Aquila. But if you want something more informal still, head to Giallo Zucca, enclosed in a small courtyard, it offers particular, biodynamic, and small producer wines, and vegetarian dishes. Or l'Antica Osteria ai Ranari, where you can try fried frogs and other delicacies of Mantua's turf and river.

2:30 pm a theater and a palazzo
But before going too far, after lunch, head to the Teatro Bibiena, a gem of a theater in which a young Mozart performed, it is perfectly conserved and is still used today.
In the afternoon, head to Mantua's other architectural and artistic masterpiece, Palazzo Te. Built between 1524 and 1534, commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga, it's the most celebrated work of the architect Giulio Romano. Today, the complex houses the municipal museum and since 1990, has housed the Centro Internazionale d'Arte e di Cultura di Palazzo Te which organizes exhibitions or ancient and modern art and architecture.
Emperor Charles V officially inaugurated Palazzo Te in 1530, the inauguration took an entire day and was used as an occasion to confer upon Federico II Gonzaga the title of duke, because until that point the Gonzagas had been marquesses. If the frescoes, especially those in the Sala dei Giganti, the Sala di Amore e Psiche, and the Sala dei Cavalli were as striking back then as they are today, the title was certainly deserved.

5 pm soul food
Mantua is the host of the most important Italian literary festival. Every September, if you happen to be here, you'll witness the invasion of the city during the four-day Festivaletteratura, this year from September 9th to the 13th. But even throughout the year the city is distinguished by an interesting offer. For literature, you cannot miss visiting the Libreria Coop (Nautilus) led by Luca Nicolini and his wife Carla, the creators and organizers of the annual Festivaletteratura. Another particular bookshop, that stands right in front of Teatro Bibiena, is Il Pensatoio, which has a vast selections of used and new books as well as cheeses and craft beers.
The Corraini Gallery is not to be missed for art lovers, it's one of the most important Italian galleries dedicated mainly to graphic design and illustration. Marzia and Maurizio Corraini, refined publishers and collectors, are friends with many artists: everyone has been through their gallery: from Pistoletto to Mari, from Fioroni to Bruno Munari, you will find unique pieces and multiples that will satisfy all budgets and the pickiest of tastes.

7 pm aperitif
Once you stopped by Gastronomia Zapparol, which offers the best local cheeses and mustards, go for an aperitif right under the porticoes. The place to be is the historic bar, Caravatti, which serves the Caravatti aperitif (ask for it!), a traditional vermouth, prepared with wine and herbal infusions. Needless to say, the recipe is secret.

8:30 pm dinner
Mantua's other establishment of note is without a doubt Above all others, we recommend il Ristorante Il Cigno. Situated right in front of Palazzo D'Arco and in a place that is an old aristocratic home, Tano Martini will accommodate you. Impeccably dressed, elegant in his bow tie, rich in his dialectal accent, he presents a menu that best represents the best of the region. Do not miss, for example, il tonno di coniglio, or the tepid sweet and sour capon breast with salad, a reinterpretation of a recipe by Bartolomeo Stefani, the cook of the court of the Gonzaga, and a dish that has become the flagship of the establishment

11 pm time to rest
In contrast to the average quality of life of the city, Mantua's hotel offering has not reinvented itself as well as the city in recent years. Certainly the Rechigi hotel guarantees the standards of a 4 star hotel, just like the beautiful, design oriented, Casa Poli, which is functional and has perfect service. But we recommend you stay at one of the many quality Bed & Breakfasts, especially the eclectic Casa San Domenico. This luxury residence has five rooms, each one furnished differently, it's a real home to stay in during your magical stay in the city.


Libreria Nautilus Coop mantova
Piazza Ottantesima Fanteria, 19
phone +39 0376. 360414

Libreria e galleria Corraini
Via Ippolito Nievo, 7/a
Phone +39 0376 322753

Ristorante Il Cigno
Piazza Carlo D'Arco, 1
Phone +39 0376 327101

Ristorante L’Aquila Nigra e La Porta accanto
Vicolo Bonacolsi, 4
Phone +39 0376 327180

Ristorante Giallozucca
Corte dei Sogliari, 4
Phone +39 0376 222817

Antica Osteria ai Ranari
Via Trieste, 11
Phone +39 0376 328431

Bar Caravatti
Via Broletto, 16,
Phone +39 0376 327826

Gastronomia Zapparoli
Via Camillo Benso, 49
Phone +39 0376 323345

Hotel Rechigi
Via Pier Fortunato Calvi, 30
Phone +39 0376 320781

Hotel Casa Poli
Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, 32
Phone +39 0376 288170

Casa San Domenico
Vicolo Scala, 8
Phone +39 335 259 292