I am walking down the cobblestone streets of Modena, headed for Via Stella – the star way. Quite ironic, when your destination is the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana. In a few minutes, I have an appointment with Massimo Bottura – one of the world’s most famous chefs. You may have seen him in the very first episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. At the time of my visit, in September 2016, Osteria Francescana is also rated as the world’s best restaurant according to the World’s 50 Best-list. On Instagram, I challenge my followers on what I should ask the legend. Soon, however, I will learn that questions are almost irrelevant when interviewing Mr. Bottura. The Italian superstar is quite the chatterbox, and two or three topics are more than enough to get all the information I would ever want from him – and then some.
I locate the salmon-pink facade of Via Stella 22 and the golden sign that reads Osteria Francescana. There is no one else in the quiet street except the odd scooter that drives past now and then. Only the typical sounds of an Italian back alley: distant chatter, the noise of a television, food cooking, clinking glasses, and families gathered to eat. Fortress Francescana is muted, though. Do I knock on the door? Before I can decide, Massimo appears out of nowhere.
– I just returned from a fashion show in Milan. Do you know Alessandro Michele? Let’s go to my office.
Bottura compares himself to Gucci’s head designer. They are both creative and disruptive in their style. After 20 years with Berlusconi, the image of Italy has been destroyed, he explains.
– We have always been a country of travelers, artists, and poets. Now, finally, we are getting our renaissance.
It’s hard to keep up with the pace of his stories, but I can sense his enormous passion and massive energy. Massimo touches on big topics. The looming Trump presidency. Art as the highest point of humanity. Combining cooking with ethics and aesthetics.
– Trump doesn’t know what art is. For him, it’s all about power, money, and war. He’s just like Putin and Berlusconi, Massimo sneers angrily.
“You can eat at restaurants all over the world, but when you choose Osteria Francescana, the experience has to be different.” – Massimo Bottura
Garbage Can Be Gold
At Osteria Francescana they like to celebrate new ideas, but also respect the Italian culture. Massimo points towards a gold-colored trash can in the corner of his office.
– Garbage can be gold. Bread can be gold – in the right hands. My cooking is about storytelling and I am always inspired by art. I’m a chef, though, not an artist, because my food always has to taste good as well.
We talk for almost an hour. Bottura tells me about his struggle to change the mindset of Italians. The road has been long and hard, for them to accept his experiments with the Italian traditions and food culture. Three-Michelin-stars later and named the best restaurant in the world – he sure won the acceptance from many others, at least.
– You can eat at restaurants all over the world, but when you choose Osteria Francescana, the experience has to be different.
In the end, I have to go meet my friends, and Massimo has to man the kitchen. An hour later, we are back outside the main door, waiting anxiously for what may well be the meal of the year. The expectations could not have been higher.
A Tribute to Normandy
We choose the large menu with all the classics, priced at € 250, and the accompanying wine pairings at € 170. Obviously, we didn’t travel all the way to Modena, only to go half the way on the menu. Massimo points out, as a fun fact, that you can actually choose to order à la carte. You can, in fact, book a table at Osteria Francescana, walk into the restaurant, order a plate of tortellini, eat, pay, and leave again. That would be pretty hardcore.
Chef Bottura likes to camouflage ingredients. We get bread with butter that has been flavored with anchovies, parmesan cheese sprinkled on parmesan chips, and sardines that aren’t sardines. Instead, they consist of eel mousse between two thin, crispy, pieces of bread made to look like fish skin. This masquerade game continues for a couple more dishes.
– It looks like an oyster, taste like an oyster, but it is raw lamb, the waiter says.
Massimo’s story from earlier comes to mind. He was 16-years-old when he first traveled to Normandy in France with his older brothers. There, he tried oysters for the first time in his life, drank cider, and ate lamb meat. That childhood memory has been compressed into a single dish at Osteria Francescana: raw lamb tartare in a salty oyster water foam with mint and apple granita. A tribute to Normandy.
Lentils Are Better Than Caviar
In the right hands, Massimo claims, simple ingredients can be much more powerful than luxury products. Bread can be gold. That’s why he makes dishes in tribute to the working class heroes. Like Lentils are better than caviar – a dish of black lentils made to look like a box of Beluga caviar. Immediately, my mind is brought back to the classic caviar en surprise dish at Søllerød Kro in Copenhagen.
Riso Levante, another dish on the menu this evening, infuses the flavors of the edible landscape surrounding the Garda lake into a risotto.
– It’s an unbelievable micro-climate around the lake. An Italian peninsula protected by the Alps, where you can get oranges, lemons, bergamots, tomatoes, and olives, Massimo told me earlier.
In this dish, they cook the risotto in a fake broth made from tomatoes, olives, and bergamot, instead of using the traditional combination of onions, bone broth, and white wine to flavor the rice. When the hot plate is served, the waiters spray a scent in front of the guests, consisting of bergamot, orange, and mandarin. Underneath the risotto, is a sea bass from the lake, cured in salt and sugar, that has been lightly smoked and grilled with fresh herbs. Lake Garda served on a plate.
The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna
A few of the main dishes should be well-known for anyone who saw Osteria Francescana’s menu featured in the Chef’s Table series. Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures was created by Massimo to help the victims of the earthquake in 2012. Hard-to-produce and expensive Parmesan wheels, crashing to the floor and breaking into pieces, threatened many producers of the famous Italian cheese with bankruptcy. In this dish, Massimo makes good use of the destroyed parts from five different vintages of Parmesan cheese.
– The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna was my revenge on Spaghetti à la Bolognese. You find this dish all over the world, but for us, it doesn’t really exist. Spaghetti is from the South, and Bolognese is a sauce from the North.
Massimo further explained that the two items don’t match. When you eat spaghetti, the sauce has to be velvety and not meaty. A meaty sauce needs to mix with a lasagna or pasta like tagliatelle, to make sure the ragu will be grabbing to the pasta when you roll it.
– I cook spaghetti in three ways; with herbs, parmesan, and tomato. I roll the pasta thin, cut, fry, smoke, and burn it. It tastes like the crunchy part of the lasagna, but it’s spaghetti. In addition, the three colors, green, white, and red, make up the Italian flag.
A Bite of Buffalo Mozzarella in the Kitchen
– Massimo wants to see you in the kitchen, a waiter comes out and nearly whispers to me.
I walk into the kitchen and find Mr. Bottura standing over a fresh delivery of buffalo mozzarella cheese. He grabs a large piece, tears it off, hands it to me, and digs his teeth into another piece himself. Mozzarella water runs from his mouth, through his beard, and drips to the floor.
– Have a taste! This is what I was talking about. Everything starts with fantastic fresh products like this, from farmers, fishermen, and cheesemakers.
That’s all he wanted to tell me, but the demonstration could not have been more powerful. The mozzarella is the best I’ve ever had.
Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart
– I call it Tiramizucca, because pumpkin for me has always been a dessert. A Tiramisu made with pumpkin (zucca in Italian). I don’t like very sweet desserts anyway, Massimo admits as he serves us this off-menu item.
Next up is the dish we’ve all been waiting for: Oops! I dropped the lemon tart. Perhaps Massimo Bottura’s foremost signature dish. Said to have been invented by chance, when the sous chef accidentally dropped the lemon tart on a plate at the pass. Today, it symbolizes the perfection of imperfection. Later on, I also tried the remake of this famous dish at In Situ restaurant in San Francisco. It was impressively accurate.
As the meal comes to an end, we are beyond full, and happy to have met the owner and chef patron himself. We ask to see Massimo one more time to say goodbye, but we are told he has already left to get some sleep. Apparently, a flight to Japan awaits him the next day. I can’t help to ponder how the experience would have been without the busy creative mastermind present. I even had an hour extra with him that regular guests don’t get. To me, that conversation explained most of the dishes, which were not presented nearly as thoroughly during the meal. That is perhaps the biggest weakness of a dinner at Osteria Francescana. The histories and memories of each dish, the artistic inspiration, and storytelling are all so closely linked to its creator, that when he’s gone – so is the magic.
I also wrote a story in Norwegian about our visit to Osteria Francescana for the printed magazine Chef – check it out in a digital version here.
Have you been to Osteria Francescana? Please, share your experience in the comments below.