In 2017, the province of Mantua, together with the rest of Eastern Lombardy, was crowned the “European Region of Gastronomy,” an award that honors cultural uniqueness and accomplishment in cuisine. This title is well-earned, as Mantua has a vast history and widely acknowledged reputation for producing some of the world’s best cuisine.
In fact, Mantuan cuisine has been highly regarded for centuries. The influence of the Gonzaga family ensured that traditional recipes lived on, earning local food the title of “cuisine of princes and people.” The dishes of Mantua are characterized by simple ingredients that are given a luxurious, thoughtful spin, creating dishes that are both comforting and impressive.
Reflective of the high quality and reverence held for food in Mantua, there are a variety of restaurants serving fabulous cuisine.
The recipes of the area are different than the rest of Lombardy and have more in common with Emilia-Romagna, resulting in a truly unique dining experience for those who have never before tried Mantuan cuisine. Visitors to Mantua can expect meals made with local products such as Lambrusco wine (often used in sauces and stews), pumpkin, rice, and meat such as fish, beef, game, and perhaps most surprisingly – donkey.
For the quintessential Italian appetizer, Mantua’s local staple cheeses and meats are always the star. Arguably the most popular cheese in the world, Parmigiano-Reggiano, is produced right near Mantua, making it a must-have when visiting the city. Similarly, excellent cured meats are crafted nearby, particularly the salame and salamella varieties. Traditional Mantuan salame is made with pork fat, but some varieties are made with tongue or belly fat. The meat used to make Mantuan salame is usually seasoned with garlic and pepper and it is aged on average between three and six months.
A typical bread served at the start of meals is called mother-in-law tongues (lingua di suocera). Despite the name, these are simply flat, crispy breadsticks that are eaten as an appetizer or alongside the meal. Another bread local to the area is tirot, which is a thin crunchy bread with a yellow color. Invented by the farmers of the province of Mantua, the bread is made with yellow onion, flour, extra virgin olive oil, lard, salt, and water. Schiacciatina, a small square flatbread is another dough-based appetizer. Historically eaten by the local farmers while working in the fields, the bread is made from flour, lard, salt, and water.
Another common starter for meals in Mantua is polenta with gras pistà, or lard mixed with herbs.
It is not unusual to find seafood in the appetizer course, and the best example of this is luccio in salsa. The dish consists of seasoned and poached pike served cold with a sauce made from anchovies, capers, olive oil, garlic, and parsley.
The most common pastas one will find in Mantua are stuffed. Without a doubt, the most beloved pasta dish among locals is tortelli di zucca – a stuffed pasta made with a pumpkin filling and topped with a butter sauce. This dish is one of the central recipes in Mantuan cooking and a must-have for visitors. The dish is characterized by the yellow color of the pasta, which is derived from the eggs, and the use of the locally grown zucca mantovana, Mantua pumpkin.
Another type of stuffed pasta, called agnolini, is usually filled with beef, salamella, chicken, cheese, and breadcrumbs. As opposed to tortelli di zucca, agnolini are served in broth.
Common pairings for other types of pastas in Mantua include meat, walnuts, and cream.
Outside of pasta, starchy dishes in Mantua often consist of rice, a staple crop of the area. One of the most classic rice dishes is risotto alla pilota, a risotto made with pork sausage and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Often it is served in a pyramid or dome shape.
Another popular risotto dish is risotto con i saltarei, which is made with freshwater shrimp.
Capunsei consists of small dumplings made from stale bread and cheese. The typical pairing is a simple sauce made from butter and sage. In some parts of the province of Mantua, the dumplings may be served in broth.
Second courses throughout Mantua feature a variety of unique seafood and other protein from the nearby lakes, including eels, frogs, shrimp, and fish. The most popular varieties of fish include catfish, pike, trout, and bass. Other meats eaten throughout the area include beef, chicken, game, and donkey.
One of the most unique dishes in Mantua is stracotto, or donkey stew. Made with cut up donkey meat, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, carrots, celery, tomato sauce, red wine, and spices, this stew is typically served with polenta. It is also possible to find the stew made with beef, but it is not as popular in Mantua as the version with donkey.
Another traditional dish is luccio in salsa, which was mentioned above in the appetizer section. The preparation for this dish is the same, but when made as a second course dish it is served hot.
Last but not least, Mantua is known throughout Italy for its frog frittata. Made with eggs and crispy frog legs, the dish may be served warm or cold.
The most common side dish one will find throughout Mantua is called mostarda. Made of fruit such as apples or pears that have been pickled with sugar and an extremely potent mustard oil, mostarda is served alongside main courses, particularly those containing meat. Once considered a food reserved only for the rich, every family in Mantua now has their own version of mostarda which is served at nearly every meal.
As with other locations throughout Italy, meals in Mantua are not complete without delicious cheese. The most popular cheeses of the area are Parmigiano-Reggiano, often called the “king of cheese,” Grana Padano, provolone, ricotta, and stracchino.
The most common food enjoyed on the go in Mantua is tirot (mentioned above in the appetizer section). This delicious, crunchy flatbread is the perfect snack to enjoy while sightseeing in Mantua’s UNESCO-recognized historic city center.
Dessert throughout Mantua typically consist of cakes. The most famous of which is torta sbrisolona. This dessert is traditional of Mantua yet famous all over the country. It is a crumbly cake made with flour, sugar, almonds, and butter. Often described as a “traveling cake” due to its long shelf life, its origins date to ancient times. People of Mantua eat it as both a snack and a dessert, and because of its crumbly nature, sbrisolona is served in bite-sized pieces instead of slices.
Another popular and unique cake is torta di tagliatelle, which is an almond cake made with sweet egg noodles on top.
For special occasions, a torta delle rose cake is perfect. The shape of the top of the cake resembles a bouquet of roses and it is often dusted with powdered sugar.
Mantua is well-known for its cuisine, which is heavily influenced by locally grown produce. The same can be said for the winemaking traditions of the area. Grapes are one of Mantua’s best crops. The land, mild climate and ample sunlight combine for ideal growing conditions, so the area is home to a variety of DOC designated wines that reflect local traditions.
The most popular local wine is Lambrusco – a variety known for its slightly fizzy and barely sweet quality that pairs perfectly with the style of Mantuan cuisine. The frizzante (sparkling) quality of Lambrusco means these wines should be enjoyed within a year or so after production to ensure the best experience.
Some of the Lambrusco varieties common throughout Mantua are Lambrusco Mantovano, Lambrusco di Sorbana, Lambrusco di Santa Croce, and Lambrusco di Castelvetro.
The area also produces a selection of crisp whites and rich reds, many of which also have DOC designation.
Located in the southeastern corner of Lombardy, Mantua’s cuisine shares some recipes with the Emilia-Romagna region, yet there are a number of dishes, such as stracotto, that are simply unique to the city. Discover the rich flavors of this part of Italy paired with delicious Lambrusco wine as you fall in love with the city of Mantua.