I had a chance to eat a few meals in Mantova recently, and the food is so exciting and different from almost anywhere else in Italy that I've visited, seemed worth posting about it on Chowhound, along with some updates from Modena for those interested in something more there than Osteria Francescana. Choices for places to eat in Mantova in my case were highly constrained by what was open when I was there (in particular the inexplicably padlocked Alla Nuova Marasca). If you want to fit in as many classic meals as possible for a trip to Mantova, best to go Thu-Sat.
In foggy, atmospheric Mantova, we absolutely delighted in eating fried eel with fantastic pickled onions, a knockout riso alla pilota, and an incredibly flavorful, aromatic, absolutely beguiling sorbir d'agnoli -- all at Osteria dei Rainari, a funky trattoria which gave us, without a doubt, the most inexplicably excruciatingly slow service I have encountered anywhere in Italy, so bear that in mind if you decide to go. (Other patrons were not served differently).
We also sampled at Osteria dei Rainari a carpaccio of beef in a fascinating marinade and the beef itself was stellar. Luccio alla salsa was appropriately piquant, but I discovered I don't happen to care for the dish. And while I would have tweaked a dish of bigoli, guanciale, pecorino and aceto balsamico with a bit more aceto and bigger, more al dente pasta, it was still a highly satisfying and fun bowl of comfort food. Many of the dishes mentioned above were served with polenta, either fried or "wet". I generally give all polenta a pass, but their fried squares of it (with hints of rosemary) had some appeal. But really, I am no judge of polenta.
Less successful was a plate of fried frogs and fried mixed vegetables, just a bit too oily (although again, the onions were fantastic!). A tortini of pumpkin was DOA, but swimming in a delicious pool of melted fontina and showered with scrumptious fried leeks. (These people really have a way with the onion family!) Plates of local cured meats and cheese from all over Italy left little impression, as did accompanying mostarde and marmallate, although a very dark chestnut honey was tasty. We drank an unmemorable pinot bianco and an okay hyper local red. Final bill was about 35e pp. (two separate meals)
We also ate at I Due Cavallini (where I loved every square inch of the subdued almost monochromatic decor and the focused service from the presiding family). We sampled the sorbir d'agnoli there as well, and while it just wasn't as complex and amazing as what we had at Osteria dei Rainari -- (It needed that addition of a dash of red wine) -- it was clean and had a delicate purity. If my head had been screwed on straight, I would have asked for a plate of tortelli di zucca as well, which is a specialty of the house. I very much would have liked to try their version.
For secondi, instead of a full bollito misto, we asked instead just for tongue, which was perfect once I got past its rather too-vivid appearance. The accompanying mostarda absolutely outshone that of Osteria dei Rainari, although I personally like my mostarda with more kick. (Best mostarda of Mantova I've ever had I bought from Melega in Bologna.) Salsa verde also came with the dish (I am never a fan). I ate a slice of elegant, rich "elevezia" cake for dessert and it just wasn't my thing. The fizzy house red wine was so pleasant I am sorry I didn't ask about it. Lunch was about 30e pp.
I wish I could have stayed more days in Mantova and eaten more meals in Mantova. I especially would have liked to eat more rice dishes and unusual pastas, and I would have made a serious effort to find out if anybody in town bests Osteria dei Rainari's anguilla in carpione.
Moving on to beautiful, beautiful Modena, it was my extreme pleasure to spend my morning hours in the central covered market, and I just want to take the occasion to urge anyone who loves food and markets to make a point of visiting the one in Modena if you are a devoted food tourist. It is just a fascinating place to be in every respect, and quite a welcoming place, too. Unable to carry too much, I finally settled on beautiful green ravioli filled with red wine & ricotta, a rather demure hunk Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged 3 years, biological pears and it made for such a beautiful dinner.
People who are planning an extended vacation with a rental apartment and kitchen in the Emilia-Romagna should give serious consideration to staying in Modena. Not only do you have this market at your doorstep, you have Bologna only 20 minutes away, Mantova only an hour away, and Parma and Reggio-Emilia 20 and 30 minutes away, so it hard to imagine not feeling like a kid in a candy store every place you turn.
Finally, rumor has it that Trattoria Ermes in Modena will close its doors forever at the end of this year, having been serving lunches to a devoted local clientele for 50 years, so I decided to go there for lunch. When I arrived before 1pm, there were several knots of neighborhood construction workers waiting to get in for a second seating. (I was the only person not wearing paint-and-cement spattered coveralls). We were soon joined by another half dozen working men, plus a nicely-dressed elderly couple from the neighborhood who very nicely adopted me when it became plain that no spaces for singletons were opening up for the second seating at the communal tables.
Trattoria Ermes is exactly that type of legendary eatery that sophisticates will tell you no longer exists or never existed or is some sentimental fantasy of Italy that serves mediocre food when in fact its all true and to eat there is wondrous: Communal tables filled with locals, no menu, one glass for your wine and your water (pour your own and keep hold of your fork), two daily specials of pasta, two secondi, a dolce, all for 15e. My newly adopting Italian family unsurprisingly only spoke Italian but they had traveled through the US ("before Katrina" marked the time frame), and shared with me their impressions of the US from coast to coast, which included, I am sorry to report, the judgment that the food everywhere was lousy (even in NOLA, even before Katrina). But they concurred the food in Mantova was terrific, and it is rather rare to hear Italians from another regions compliment another town's cuisine.
My baked pasta dish did come close to being a door stop, but my secondi of meatballs was just delightful, as was their fizzy near-pink Lambrusco di Sorbara. I ducked out before dessert and coffee because, having invaded this very special place for locals, I didn't wish to overstay my welcome.
If it is true Trattoria Ermes will close at the end of the year, having been doing this every day for 50 years, it is a piece of Modena history that will come to a close. However others might rate it as restaurant destination (it is in the Slow Food guide), the feeling you get from having partaken in a meal there is, for me, indescribably moving.
(Edited to add that I just double checked, and all the eateries I mentioned are listed in the Slow Food guide and Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler.)
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