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A few meals in Mantova, the Modena market, and Trattoria Ermes

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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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  1. Thanks so much for posting this. Mantova and its food is definitely on my list of favorite destinations. We didnt like Modena as much, but we visited in glaring 90 degree+ humid summer weather, so that may explain it. Even Giusti felt wilted.
    Great report.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jen kalb

      Humidity can definitely kill the joy in Italy (I might have otherwise felt more kindly toward Lecce). It was a beautifully sunny autumn morning in Modena, and now that the scaffolding is off the Torre, the centro gleams and glitters.

      Another reason I so enjoy Modena is that I find its centro storico is so well utllized by the locals. It feels like everyone has come out for the morning market with a determined agenda, bicycles are everywhere (ridden by all ages) and so many well dressed men and women take a newspaper-reading break in the many, many handsome cafes that are tucked into every corner.

      By contrast much of the centro of Bologna, away from the markets, feels less populated and enjoyed (and Modena seems to have far less graffiti). The students hang out in their quarter, but I think the rest of the city residents reject much of the historic center as overpriced. The centro of Reggio nell Emilia doesn-t have the same dramatic anchor as the piazza Grande. Parma is gorgeous but the liveliest commercial streets are well away from the loveliest monuments, and Parma always feels more exclusive to me (and a lot of people seem to prefer to hang out in the pretty park, rather than in the cafes),

      Modena radiates a lot of social cohesion, with all points leading to the center, and the happily bustling food market is a very acceptable mix of the slightly (and understandably) touristy at its periphery, but seriously wonderful at its core. No doubt some tour groups are led through here and I just missed them, but it is nothing like Bologna these days. Waiting to buy my cheese, I watched the vendor precisely measure 2 tablespoons of mascarpone for the elderly woman ahead of me, because that's all she wanted. And she watched him like a hawk! I felt like Alice in Wonderland walking around Modena, with all those pictures of Pavarotti grinning like the Cheshire Cat and everything singing EAT ME!

    2. Sounds great! Thanks for the report! Can you tell me what the hours are for Osteria dei Rainari? We will be there on a Sunday most likely and it looks like they are only closed on Monday. But do you know if they are open for lunch and dinner? And if only dinner I wonder what time they open. Would you recommend making a reservation?

      2 Replies
      1. re: JazzyK

        I had a lunch there and a dinner there.

        My most current copy of the Osterie d'Italia is at my office, but the one I have here likewise says it is closed Mondays and otherwise open for both lunch and dinner, including Sunday.

        For lunch, I walked in rather late -- after 1.30pm -- without a reservation, and while I had to wait a few minutes, I was served. Leaving, we made a reservation for dinner for a Tuesday night, and while the place filled up the evening we arrived, it seemed they always found tables for people who showed up. However, if this is where you want to eat and will only be in Mantova for one night, you might as well reserve.

        1. re: barberinibee

          That's perfect! Thanks for the information. I think I would rather eat a late lunch than dinner. But I will keep in mind that they are very slow :)