Three days in four of Italy’s most romantic-sounding cities – Padua, Ferrara, Mantua and Cremona – provided more than enough vivid images to fill the memory card on my camera.
And while it is difficult to capture the freshness and simplicity of the food and wine on offer in this stretch of the fecund Po valley quite so easily, two instances during our last morning in Cremona seemed to highlight this region’s unpretentious approach to eating and drinking well.
The first came by the fish shop close to the city’s magnificent cathedral. A young man walked out carrying a large crate of mussels which he managed to wedge between the footplates on his small motorbike. He then went back for a second which he just about got on without the bike falling over. Then he went in to the shop a third time and came out with an even bigger box of clams, put them on top, clambered over this mollusc mound and set off rather precariously through the crowds of the nearby flower market. Somebody that night was going to have a great fish supper.
The same directness of approach was exemplified three hours later by our waiter at La Lucciola, a restaurant about 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre that is situated right by the river and consequently an extremely popular summer venue.
He greeted our request for a menu with a smile replying that the restaurant had neither menu nor wine list. While for the latter we could go inside to the bar and choose from the many bottles on display, for the menu we would have to rely on his obviously well trained memory. He began by asking us whether we would like to start with a meat or fish antipasti and no sooner had he taken this order than he walked away. Each course, it would appear, was to be ordered separately but so switched on was the kitchen that this never resulted in any obvious delay. Subsequent highlights included excellent pasta dishes and desserts. And while Cremona boasts what seems like a higher ratio of top quality food shops per head of population than any other city, it also houses in Piazza Stradivari, right by the statue to the famed violin maker, a hugely stylish wine bar il 21 w.a.y (www.il21way.com).
Although we only spent four hours in Padua it was the city that left the strongest impression on me. Mostly, this has to do with the sheer beauty of the Scrovegni Chapel but the subsequent walk in the sunshine through this medieval university town to an unforgettable lunch at Franco Favero’s Per Bacco was almost as enjoyable.
No restaurant or enoteca anywhere has, I believe, been as accurately named as Per Bacco or For Bacchus. Although the food is very, very good the wine list incorporates 1,300 different wines, including numerous very expensive bottles including two vintages of Ch d’Yquem, and all of these are available by the glass. When I asked Favero how he managed to sustain this highly altruistic but seemingly financially suicidal approach to wine his extremely gentle face seemed to beam with the response, “Well, for the following two days the staff will obviously try and sell whatever is open. After that we’ll drink it together. It’s no hardship.”
Nor is eating at Per Bacco where the menu concentrates on so many of the region’s excellent ingredients but with a twist: a quiche of poppy seeds; a gorgonzola mousse with filo pastry; risotto with hop shoots and herbs and several of the best local cheeses. With a restrained number of glasses of wine lunch for five came to 176 euros as well as the realisation that we should have booked into a nearby hotel to enable us to return to Per Bacco for dinner.
Such is the scale of Mantua’s Ducal Palace and Palazzo Te that it seemed eminently sensible to book into an osteria for lunch and the much grander Aquila Nigra, part of the 16th century complex just opposite the Palace for dinner.
Osteria ai Ranari certainly provided the lift five tired travellers were looking for with its charm and speedy service and concentration on such local specialities as the tortellini with pumpkin and sparkling Lambrusco, now no longer the joke it was even five years ago. And with a total bill of 102 euros it is great value.
Aquila Nigra aims for a completely different market with its waiting staff in dinner jackets and impressive dining room providing a definite sense of occasion that no osteria could supply. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise a restaurant for lacking atmosphere when on the eve of a bank holiday it was obviously quieter than usual although some of the food was good, particularly one dish of the local shrimps with courgettes extremely finely diced on a mandolin.
But the management at Aquila Nigra had one lesson to teach restaurateurs world wide. As soon as we each pronounced our preference for still or sparkling water the waiter fixed our water glass accordingly. Those that ordered sparkling water kept their clear glasses while those who ordered still immediately had their clear glasses changed to blue ones, making the waiter’s role far more efficient and, even more importantly, leading to far less interruptions in our conversation.
There was another important lesson to be learnt from reading the menu outside Ristorante Max in the square next to Ferrara’s hugely imposing castle. While listing some of the more obvious antipasti and pasta courses the main courses were entirely fish based, a selection that caused a certain amount of dissension in our ranks.
However, we went in to discover a restaurant which although it had not been changed physically for some time had fallen into the hands of two highly talented chefs, Marco Beni and Riccardo Scalambra, who use this long established institution to show off their skills with four very different but ultimately highly complementary ingredients: fish; cheese; wine, of which their selection includes a lot from outside Italy, and chocolate.
The presence of exemplary talent in the kitchen was obvious in several dishes: aubergine parmigiani with shrimps, prawns and orange rind; monkfish tripe with polenta; and a perfectly grilled soaso, a fish similar to turbot, native to the Adriatic. The brief dessert menu which concentrated on an exquisite chocolate mousse and plates of their own chocolates filled with the most unusual combinations – chestnut, pumpkin, pepper and beer – were excellent, distinctive but not shocking.
While all of these restaurants were new to me this trip also provided the opportunity to return to one of my favourite and most atmospheric places in the whole of Italy, La Crepa in Isola Davorese, fifteen kilometres outside Cremona. In a building that back in the 15th century belonged to the Duke of Mantua it is now run by a family who still use the vaults for their original purpose – to house salami and wines. On the ground floor brothers Franco and Carlo run a food and wine shop, café, gelateria and restaurant all of which - from the pictures on the wall to the style of the cooking and the ridiculously low prices on the menu - can only be summarily described as ‘from another era’.
La Lucciola, Via al Porto 16, Cremona, 0372-412952. Closed Wednesday night and Thursday.
Per Bacco, P.le Ponte Corvo 10, Padua, 049.8754664, www.per-bacco.it
Osteria ai Ranari, Via Trieste 11, Mantua, 0376 32841, Closed Monday.
Aquila Nigra, Vicolo Bonacolsi, Mantua, 0376-327180, www.aquilanigra.it
Ristorante Max, Piazza della Repubblica 16, 0532-209309 Ferrara. Closed Monday.
La Crepa, Piazza Matteotti 13, Isola Davorese, 0375-396161. Closed Sunday evening and Wednesday.