Paolo Tullio: Postcard from paradise
Mantova del Lago
Localita La Pesca,
Tel: 0039 0776 887 344
There's a restaurant that I've been going to almost my entire life.
I can remember going with my parents when I was about 12 for the first time and I've been going there ever since -- most recently last week. It's in Italy and until very recently it wouldn't have been that easy to get to, but a new road from Ferentino, south of Rome, directly to Sora has changed things considerably. It's now accessible from Rome in not much over one hour.
Ristorante Mantova del Lago is just outside Sora on the banks of Lake Fibreno. The lake itself is quite extraordinary: it begins as a spring -- the second largest in Europe -- which gushes out from under a mountain very, very cold. I measured the water temperature at the source and it's eight degrees. This huge spring forms the lake of Fibreno and it in turn becomes the River Fibreno, a tributary of the River Liri.
The whole area is a World Heritage Site, and the lake contains creatures that are found nowhere else. It's a nature sanctuary, so if you take a pedalo out on to the lake you'll see otters, coypu, herons, grebes, moor hens and the famous Fibreno trout and sticklebacks. Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was born quite near the lake in what is now called San Domenico, described it beautifully in his De Legibus and he also described the famous floating island, which can be seen and visited by boat.
The restaurant is a family-run affair and the current one is on the lake shore, whereas its previous incarnation was a little downriver at the bridge called Ponte Tapino.
It's run by brothers, Gustavo and Enzo Mantova, whose family also have a large olive oil factory nearby. On the old road between Sora and Vicalvi you come to the impressive entrance of the Villa Mazzenga, which the brothers own and will shortly be restoring. The restaurant is on the Mazzenga estate, right on the shores of the lake.
To put things in perspective, let me tell you that in the Comino Valley -- which is just two kilometres from the lake -- you can eat in many restaurants for between €15 and €20a head, including wine, coffees and liqueurs. I mention this because those are the sort of prices that we're used to paying, for the simple rustic food that's served in those restaurants.
Ristorante Mantova is different. Firstly it doesn't serve simple, rustic food, second there's a high level of service and lastly it has a spectacular location. And all those elements add up to one thing -- cost.
This year I made my annual visit with Marian Kenny and we went there for lunch. The old farmhouse has been restored and there's an extension at the back which is made almost completely of picture windows, which allows you to look across the lake to the little town of Posta Fibreno on the other side.
The dining room was perfectly air-conditioned, the tables were clad in stiff linen, the chairs were upholstered and comfortable -- all hallmarks of fine dining. Outside the sun shone brilliantly, the air over the lake shimmering in the heat. We took a table by a window and it was a scene of near perfect bucolic paradise.
The pricing on the menu would look a little strange to Irish eyes: the antipasti -- basically hors d'ouevres -- the starters and the main courses are all priced pretty much the same, bracketing €15. We tend to expect starters to be cheaper than main courses, but quite often in Italy you'll find little difference between the two.
Marian decided to start with the courgette flower risotto, while I chose one of the day's specials, a blue-fin tuna tartare. For main courses Marian picked lamb cutlets and I the calamari.
The wine list is very long and is quite properly almost entirely made up of Italian wines.
Again, the prices on this list would not look strange to Irish eyes: there's little under €20. If you know something about Italian wines, this list will delight you, page after page of super-Tuscans in different vintages, Barolos, Brunellos, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and some excellent whites from Mastroberardino. We decided to go economy, and chose a Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige region at €20. I have never had a bad meal in this restaurant ever, and this one was no exception.
Marian's risotto, done with saffron and courgette flowers was quite delicious, 'the best risotto I've ever eaten' was her verdict. I had a tian of tuna tartare, simply done, flavoured with salt and capers that was delicious.
Lamb cutlets in Italy look different from Irish ones, because the lambs are killed when they are much younger. You get a higher percentage of bone to meat, but it's very tender. Basically you have to give up on cutlery and use your fingers, a technique that was new to Marian, but that she has begun to master. While she ate daintily, I enjoyed my calamari, which were perfectly cooked and the rings were made from small squid, making them more tender than usual. A real treat came with Marian's lamb, it was freshly cooked potato crisps, still hot and straight from the fryer.
With the Italian seasons ahead of ours, we enjoyed wild blackberries with homemade ice cream as a dessert, something that's still to come here in Wicklow.
We took our coffees outside on the terrace, enjoying a cool breeze that swept lazily across the lake, where I quoted Cicero to Marian, 'Here it is that the Fibreno opens like a bird's beak, here is my real home, and my brother's too'. The bill for this excellent lunch came to €97.
On a budget
If you are in this area, avoid Mantova for budget meals. Instead, go to Atina, some 15 minutes by road. At the bottom of the hill leading up to the old town you’ll find the agriturismo ‘Il Contadino’, where you’ll eat well and abundantly for €20 a head. If you like truffles, go up the hill to Gallinaro and follow the signs for ‘Bambin’ Gesu’. You’ll see ‘Il Ristoro’ on your left. Lots of truffles, simple food, all your wine, liqueurs and coffee for €20 a head. Tell Fabio I sent you.
On a blowout
A meal in Mantova is essentially a blow out, you can spend €18 for an hors d’oeuvre, €18 for pasta with violet prawns, €30 for scampi and €8 for dessert. These are high prices by Italian standards, but you won’t be disappointed with either the food or the place.
Value for money 8/10