2018 Platinum List Focus: Osteria Francescana

Massimo Bottura’s boundary-breaking culinary institution in Modena, Italy, has again been named the best restaurant on the planet. CL pays a visit

WORDS Terry Zarikian
September / October 2018
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Three days after I witness chef Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana being awarded the top spot on the 2018 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, I arrive at his gastronomic temple in Modena, Italy, where he greets me with an emotional bear hug. “I am so glad you came,” he says. “Today you are going to understand everything.”  

Over the next several hours, I taste 23 dishes representing the past, present and future of Osteria Francescana, where Bottura has deconstructed regional recipes and transformed dreams, memories and art into cuisine since 1995. Central to his approach is his native Modena and the larger Emilia-Romagna region, as well as the area’s local ingredients.

“I am going to serve you a few classics,” he begins. “Twenty-five years ago I created Five Ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano, presenting [the cheese] in different textures and temperatures. When an artist shoots a picture of fog it represents the slow passing of time, but as a chef I had to choose something edible. So I focused on both Parmigiano-Reggiano and the time that you need to create magic with the aging process.” To express this concept, the dish combines tastes of the cheese at various ages: in a demi-soufflé (24 months old), a silky sauce (30 months), a foam (36 months), a crunchy galette (40 months) and an “air” (50 months).

His second classic, An Eel Swimming Up the Po River—encompassing Italian culture, history and richness of ingredients—is based on the story of the Dukes of Ferrara, the Este family, the most powerful feudal clan in the region. In 1597, after the death of Alfonso II d’Este, who had no direct heirs, the Papal States forced the family to relinquish Ferrara and relocate to Modena. “They built a hospital there five times the size needed, because they saw the future and believed in social responsibility,” says Bottura. “They also invested in art, all of which is part of my heritage.” He created this dish to commemorate the move to Modena. “The inspiration came because the Pope said he wanted the income of eel fishing back, but the Duke said, basically, no way.”

Swimming from Ferrara to Modena, the eel gathers a wealth of ingredients along the way, including polenta from Veneto and apples from Mantua. Bottura says he based the dish on Renaissance cuisine, which favored sweetness and acidity: “I found mela campanina apples at my father’s country house and created a green juice full of sweet acidity that cleans the palate and cuts the fattiness of the eel.”

In Modena, the eel encounters saba—cooked grape juice used in the fermentation of balsamic vinegar—and arrives at Osteria Francescana. There it is marinated, slowly cooked sous vide at a low temperature, lacquered with saba and finished with a gel, while the polenta, already grilled, is made into a sumptuous sauce. “That is how my eel story becomes culture,” Bottura says.

Gian Carlo Muzzarelli, the mayor of Modena, says, “Massimo is a Modenese with deep roots, and he uses these roots—our history, culture and food heritage—with intelligence and modernity.” 

Born and raised in Modena, Bottura, 55, grew up under the kitchen table, clinging to his grandmother Ancella’s knees while she rolled pasta dough. Unhappy with law school, at 23 he opened his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, on the outskirts of Modena, where he began to approach cooking as a science. He wondered how recipes survive for centuries, and learned to see them as the sum of a series of experiments or mistakes, repeated, interpreted, forgotten and remembered all over again. From his first trattoria, he apprenticed with French chef Georges Coigny in Farini, and after selling his restaurant, further refined his style under the legendary Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo. His drive to learn took him outside Italy—he also spent a summer at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli—which ultimately encouraged him to rewrite Italian tradition and cuisine.

 Indeed, though Osteria Francescana occupies an ancient building on a cobbled street, its interior is modern, even severe, with grey walls and sculptural lighting by the award-winning Davide Groppi. The setting perfectly complements pieces from Bottura’s world-class collection of contemporary art, which sometimes inspire his culinary creations. One of the dining rooms contains Francesco Vezzoli’s beautiful La Vie en Rose series, 19 black-and-white stills of Edith Piaf featuring embroidered tears (Bottura says, “Cooking is an act of love, as singing was an act of love for Piaf”). In a corridor near the kitchen are a pair of Olafur Eliasson landscapes and a trio of stuffed pigeons by Maurizio Cattelan, which are perched above a trash bag cast in bronze by British artist Gavin Turk.

Fashion is also a fascination of Bottura and his wife/business partner, Washington, D.C.-born Lara Gilmore. He is an official ambassador for Gucci, and the couple is planning to open another Gucci Osteria after the success of the original that launched in January in the fashion house’s namesake museum in Florence. Osteria Francescana’s china is made by the Italian manufacturer Richard Ginori, founded in the 18th century and now owned by Gucci.

 The tableware provides a first-rate setting for Bottura’s creations, including a delightful branzino ceviche from the Northern Adriatic encased in corn meringue and a macaron chicken cacciatore, both part of a series of six amuse bites. Inspired by Jonathan Borofsky’s Half a Sailboat Painting, exhibited in a hallway, the insalata di mare features leaves of lettuce hiding crispy seafood treasures and beads of caviar. The Mediterranean sole—referred to by the chef as Mediterranean Combustion—is influenced by the work of artists Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri, who, respectively, cut or burned their canvases to seek the subconscious. Originally, using dehydrated seawater, Bottura created paper in which to cook the sole al cartoccio, but it burned. He then opted to perfectly sous-vide the sole and finish with an emulsion of its own juice and olive oil, Pantelleria capers, Sorrento lemons and black Gaeta olives. 

Conceived as a palate cleanser, Bottura’s classic Autumn in New York—a tribute to Billie Holiday’s rendition of the jazz standard—changes its ingredients with the seasons. A selection of items from global market stands, it could be spring in Japan, or summer in Modena (tomato variations, mozzarella cream cheese and anchovies in tomato water and ham broth). The dish In the Countryside presents ravioli with snails, hare and aromatic herbs. Using the pasta as a “container of ideas,” Bottura stuffs snails inside with a civet of hare blood. “There is no butter,” he says. “You eat and eat but feel light.”

Bottura then brings out a pot containing an off-the-menu dish, miniature Modenese tortellini served in a pool of cream and Reggiano. He ladles an ample serving into a shallow dish in front of his wife, and places the remainder in front of me. We both ooh and aah, as she tells me that she belongs to a group of volunteers who are helping the grandmothers of Modena teach autistic children how to roll and fold the region’s famous tortellini in an innovative kitchen.

And that’s hardly the end of the couple’s charitable endeavors. They founded the nonprofit organization Food for Soul, which educates people about how to make meals from surplus ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. With the assistance of a global team of chefs, the group has created community kitchens—refettorios—in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, London and Paris to feed those in need (more locations are being established). Last year, Bottura and friends, including Daniel Humm and René Redzepi, published Bread Is Gold, a cookbook featuring recipes using “wasted” ingredients; royalties go to Food for Soul to create and sustain the refettorios. As Bottura said in his acceptance speech at the 50 Best gala, “I’m going to use the spotlight to show the world that chefs in 2018 are more than the sum of their recipes.”

And he has a few new recipes to share, including Wagyu no Wagyu, a “multicultural combination” pairing Bottura’s take on Japanese Wagyu—substituting heart and belly from a pig—with a ponzu sauce made by Kondo Takahiko, his Tokyo-born sous chef. The Chocolate and Woodcock Tart is altogether another matter, the size of a silver dollar, centered on a stunning Gio Ponti for Richard Ginori plate. The exuberant taste of a dense mousse of woodcock innards covered in a shimmering dark-chocolate ganache made me pause after the first bite to collect my thoughts. I had to finish it all as I was never going to taste anything like it again. Then we both enjoyed his baba, a light, rumless Tribute to the Amalfi Coast with aromas of lemon verbena, tomato jam, oregano and rich strawberry juice.

But the couple had one more surprise: They took me to a 19th-century villa in the Modenese countryside that they are restoring to become a 12-room inn. Surrounded by agricultural fields, the property, Maria Luigia, named after the chef’s mother, boasts a private dining space with an open kitchen. This different kind of Osteria, more interactive and informal, is expected to open in early 2019.

To discover the 2018 Platinum List Awards for Best Star Chef Restaurant, click here

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