Osteria Francescana. in Modena, Italy, the restaurant of highly energetic and inventive Italian chef, Massimo Bottura is rated second in the world by the Diners Club–sponsored 50 Best Restaurants Academy. Chef Bottura the subject of the Chef’s Table TV program first episode, has been referred to as the best chef in the world. At the present time, he is without doubt the most famous and readily recognized chef in Italy. We expected great things from our meal and were not disappointed.
We booked a room at Salloto Della Arte, a small but beautifully appointed bed-and-breakfast just one block from the restaurant. After an adventure finding parking in this old town section of Modena, we settled in to our elegant room. We took a brief tour of the city before dinner. At 8:30, we went to the restaurant where we were warmly welcomed by what must have been a half-dozen restaurant staff. As is the case with most high-end restaurants, Osteria Francescana has more than 50 staff members at work on any given night.
The menu we were presented had several options: An à la carte section; an experimental tasting menu, and a more traditional tasting menu with dishes described in poetic, if not particularly helpful terms. We were unsure of which tasting menu would provide the best experience. Our waiter, when presented with our dilemma, suggested a merger of items from the two tasting menus to provide us with the restaurant’s current “favorites.” This third, off-the-menu option would include a special wine paring to accompany these select dishes. This seemed an ideal resolution.
We started out our meal with bread and local beer: a refreshing golden ale with a light floral, hoppy tang. An amuse-bouche arrived. It consisted of three small bites, first, “Tempura with Carpione,” then, a “Rabbit Macaroon,” third, “Baccalà on a Tomato Pillow.” The tempura, of aula (a small freshwater fish) and a batter charged with nitrous oxide, was topped with a savory ‘ice cream’ made primarily from onions, vinegar, raisins and pine nuts. The rabbit macaroon was prepared with a rabbit mousse between two light, airy crackers. We both enjoyed the first two bites. The baccalà, featured in the third bite, is made from salt cured cod; I enjoyed my helping, and Nicole’s as well. The beer complemented these delightful morsels nicely.
The first plate, poetically named “Treasures from the Sea: Sustainable and Salvaged,” was made with an assortment of seafood and vegetables in a pork broth aspic. It was served with 2013 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, a dry white wine with nice floral notes made exclusively from the trebbiano grape. This is a common grape of Emilia-Romagna, also notable as one of the two grapes used for production of traditional balsamic vinegar. I was again blessed with a double helping, as Nicole is not fond of unusual fish dishes and was happy to share her portion with me.
Next, “From Goro to Hokkaido” was placed before us. This was another poetic name from the menu that turned out to be a beautiful dish. A crab was painted onto the plate from dried, pulverized crab shell. The base of the crab body was created from eggplant. The crab meat, some squid, fish roe, and other ocean delicacies were arranged on top of the eggplant slice with capers and various fresh herbs. The Trebbiano d’Abruzzo was continued with this dish. We both loved the creative presentation and wonderful flavors.
The “Delta of the Po Ravioli” was unique. The filling was made from cotechino, a Modenese delicacy that is the primary component of a local pork sausage of the same name. Our ravioli contained boiled pigskin (cotechino), pork and three types of lentils. The egg pasta ravioli were cooked in Lambrusco, a regional wine made from a grape of the same name, and this dish was accompanied with another crisp white wine.
We were served a French Vouvray with the “Striped Red Mullet Livornese.” The minerality of this wine, made from the Chenin blanc grape, complimented the intense tomato and fish flavors of this beautifully presented dish. An abstract of asparagus, prosciutto and peas tagliolini, dressed with threads of black truffle followed with the same delightful Vouvray wine.
As a palate cleanser, we were presented soup spoons heaped with a luscious, silky leek preparation, topped with a black truffle chiffonade. This was so delicious that we actually considered asking for a second helping.
The Damijan Podversic Ribolla Gialla, a crisp, acidic Pinot Grigio, was served with perhaps the most famous dish created by chef Buttora. “The Five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano” presents this Italian cheese in five different stages. First, a 24-month old cheese demi-soufflé, then a warm milky cream sauce made from 30-month old cheese, a chilled foam of 36-month cheese, and a Parmigiano cracker made from crusts of a 40-month cheese, finally the crust of a 50-month cheese is turned into light ethereal bubbles as a finishing touch. Bottura describes this dish as a white-on-white portrait of the Emilia-Romagna countryside.
“The Crunchy Part of Lasagne,” another signature dish for the restaurant and chef Bottura, was served with an intense, crisp rosé that was fragrant with aromas of strawberry and red fruits. It is difficult to describe this dish but it represents the “essence” of lasagne. It looks like a crumpled Asian cracker infused with basil and tomato flavors. The cracker is dressed with a Parmigiano béchamel and is sitting atop a succulent sous-vide cooked ragu. It is justly famous and represents everybody’s favorite part of the fresh cooked lasagna: the crispy corner.
We moved on to a full bodied red wine, a Nero D’Avola from Sicily, served with the “Beautiful, Psychedelic, Spin-painted Veal, Not Flame Grilled.” This was another sous-vide cooked dish that was darkly caramelized on the outside and painted with colorful and seemingly random (although carefully calibrated) pastes of vegetable and herb purée. The sous-vide method of cooking is done by immersing a sealed package in a closely controlled water bath. Meat can be cooked for hours or even days using this technique without losing flavor or texture.
“The Foie Gras Ice Cream Bar with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena” was exactly as described. An unusual dish, served with a golden botrytis sweetened Picolit wine. Botrytis is a fungus sometimes called “noble rot” that dries out and enhances the sweetness of grapes, such as the Picolit grape, that are then used to make dessert wines. The intense syrupy and fruity wine paired beautifully with the rich foie gras and balsamic vinegar flavored ice-cream.
Sparkling Muscat was served with a salad made up of herbs and flowers. This was followed by the famous “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart” desert, a dish first created when the pastry chef dropped a freshly prepared lemon tart. It is now a signature dish and work of art on a plate. Another desert dish described with the name Vignola (a town 20 km from Modena), is an incredibly complex chocolate cherry preparation that we both found delicious and unusual. All this was followed with beautiful petits fours to complete the meal.
Chef Bottura talked with us and explained many of the dishes personally. We brought the chef a gift and, in exchange, were given a cookbook personally inscribed by Massimo and his principal kitchen staff. As a special treat, we had our picture taken in the kitchen with the star chef and he key staff.