“There are three taboos in Italy: don’t mess with the Pope; don’t mess with the national football team, and don’t mess with your grandmother’s recipes.” – Chef Massimo Bottura
Our trip to Italy would not have been complete without visiting Modena – at least for a few days. The city is home for two “musts” on my bucket list – the Ferrari Factory/Museum and Osteria Francescana.
Because this blog concentrates on food and wine, I will write about the restaurant, although the Ferrari Museum was certainly worth the visit….
In 2016, after two years in the number two spot of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Osteria Francescana was voted the best restaurant in the world. Massimo Bottura describes his restaurant’s food as “territorial cuisine seen from a distance of ten kilometers.” In a country whose food culture is deeply conservative, he has, through creativity and uncanny skill managed to evolve traditional dishes into something new and unexpected.
In late October, I emailed our request for reservations on any of three days that we planned to be in Modena and promptly…. heard nothing. By December, I had still heard nothing. Oh well, it was a good try. I had essentially given up when on December 17, a day before we were leaving to spend Christmas with family in San Diego, an email popped up from Osteria Francescana. They had an eight o’clock table available for the dinner seating on April 12. We jumped on it – what a Christmas present!
On the afternoon of our dinner reservation, we walked through the Modena neighborhood to plan our route – we did not want to be late for this one. The restaurant’s subtle front door on Via Stella was just steps away from our lodgings in Vittorio Veneto 25.
Eight o’clock finally arrived as we eagerly walked to the restaurant. We were amused to ring a door bell as if arriving at a private home. The door immediately opened and we were greeted by the hostess who inquired, “Welcome sir and madam, under what name will I find your reservation?” She escorted us into the foyer – past a mannequin in a khaki military guard’s uniform – straight away to her desk, checked our name off her list, helped my wife with her coat, and graciously showed us our table – all seamless and very professional.
There were only twelve tables which were divided among three dining rooms, so our comfort and personal space was guaranteed. Even so, we spoke in our “library” voices as did everyone else. We did hear bits of French, German and UK English conversations at other tables. (I am probably showing my age, but I find subdued ambiance much more pleasant than many San Francisco or Los Angeles hot-spots where noise prevents normal conversation with my dining partner.)
Once seated, the hairs on the back of my neck went up and I thought, “I am about to experience something very special and real”. We were given menus and the wine list. Deciding what to eat and drink for the next three hours was a heady task, but we managed. The menu offered two tasting options: Sensations, a progressive, seasonal ever-changing showpiece; or Traditions in Evolution, a “greatest hits” compilation. There were also a-la-carte choices. We both selected the Traditions in Evolution” option.
The wine list was more of a wine book, seemingly filled with every Italian wine known to man – at least known to me. Barolos (my choice) were organized with many, many vintages of many, many wineries – each winery had its own page (or pages).
After making our selections, we were immediately served S. Pelligrino and the first of many baskets of warm, soft and crusty sour dough rolls and breads, some super long grassini, and a small bowl of extra virgin olive oil. The baskets were frequently replaced, even when they were still nearly full. According to our waiter, this assured the customer always had warm bread available. In a few moments, the sommelier arrived with our Barolo. Life was good.
The wait staff, all in black suits, carried themselves with an intimate, albeit reserved, manner, and each person on the staff was prepared to answer all of our questions. This was the kind of professionalism I expect and appreciate in a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
The dining room reflects Massimo Bottura’s personality, gusto, and passion as much his food. His dishes are metaphors – edible ideas – influenced by contemporary culture, art, and music, using food as an organizational force.
The space, neither distracting nor plain, was luxurious in a contemporary Italian manner. The walls were primarily shades of gray, the ceiling black and the table cloths bright white. Color sprang from the art (part of Chef Bottura’s collection of contemporary art from Damien Hirst to Ai Weiwei), from the patrons and from the food. The music was from the best of modern jazz, from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis.
The Osteria Francescana experience seemed to be orchestrated – our approach down a narrow quiet side street, through the venturi effect of the entry and then into our spacious but intimate dining room and ultimately the food, designed to enhance the interaction of all of our senses with the food and wine. The architect in me loved all of it.
My next post will attempt to describe the food we enjoyed.
*Image courtesy of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”